What Allegories Can Teach Us

Man Booker Prize-winner, Life of Pi
Allegorical fiction can take very complex realities and convey them in powerful, emotional, psychologically accurate way.
  • Transcript


Question: Why do you write allegories?

Yann Martel:  Because I think that’s the forte of art.  What art does marvelously is it takes very complex realities and it can go to their heart, it can go to their essence, and convey it in a way that’s both very powerful and emotionally or psychologically accurate.  So I’ll give you a perfect example of a great allegory, "Animal Farm," by George Orwell.  Which takes on what Stalin did to the Russian people, and that’s a vast, sprawling complex story.  With "Animal Farm," which is this delightful allegory, delightful fable that takes place on an English farm, you get none of the heavy facts of history, but you get the essence.  So it’s a story of this commune set up by animals and slowly things go wrong.  And it captures exactly in spirit what happened to the Russian people under Stalin.  So it’s a very light, powerful medium for discussing very complex realities.

Question: Why look at the Holocaust in allegorical terms?

Yann Martel:  Absolutely.  In part, because it’s very hard to write a straightforward novel on the Holocaust.  The Holocaust has tended to be resistant to metaphor.  Because it was so dumbfounding, because it was a unique phenomenon, the ferocity of it, the view of the Nazis of the Jews, the sort of idea that they were a disease. Because of its newness to its consciousness, it has resisted being approached by the tools of art.  We tend to look at the Holocaust in historical ways, in the mode of a witness.  So in a sense, trying to approach it as if we were journalists or witnesses, which is why its representation is dominated by either survivors or by historians—which is all absolutely fine, but I think we also need to understand it using the tools of art, because art... Beyond, as I said, conveying essence, art can show something under many, many different angles, and that’s useful, because the more you look at it from many angles, you get different truths, you get a newer understanding of it, perhaps.

So I chose allegory simply because there are very few allegories about the Holocaust.  It has been fiction-resistant.  And I think we need to understand it, in addition to understanding it historically, we also need to understand it through the medium of art.

My feeling is that the literary arts, because they are tethered to fixed meaning... after all, words are highly conventionalized sounds, right?  The word "table" has a fairly standard meaning.  Well, if you increase that, words are tethered to specific meanings and if you string them together, you start being tethered to narrative, to narration.  And once you’re tethered to narration, when it comes to the Holocaust, you very quickly end up on a train going to hell, you end up on a train going to Auschwitz, you very quickly end up in that narrative trope.  So it’s hard to escape talking about it in the very literal, historical manner.

So I suspect that uniquely among human events, because I suspect—because I believe that nearly any human event, benefits from being treated by artists—the Holocaust may be one of those rare instances where other art forms may be more suitable, or as, you know, we need to be aware that they, too, can... their language is important, too.  So to be very clear, visual arts, for example. Visual arts are not so narrative.  A painting has narrative limits.  Installation art has narrative limits to it. But precisely because of that, they can escape the narrative gravity of the Holocaust.  So I’ve seen visual arts that have, that are surprisingly ironic, that apply the tools of irony to the Holocaust, and that’s to the benefit of the Holocaust.

And music, the Holocaust is obviously an extremely emotional event.  Music directly connects to our emotions.  Once again, very limited narratively, very limited narratively, music is.  So, music can also be a very effective way of getting into the spirit of the Holocaust, of what happened in that tragedy.

So what I discovered reading, writing a novel inspired by the Holocaust, is that genocide tends to be story-defeating, unless you are a witness.  And because of that, we need other means to remember that, if we want to get the most out of a mass murder and not just let it slip from our consciousness.

Question: Why not focus on a more recent genocide? 

Yann Martel
:  I consciously chose the Holocaust because it is the defining genocide.  And also, it is unique in the sense that most other mass murders in history were or are politically expedient.  So for example, the other great genocide of the 20th Century is the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey.  Now, that was of course a horrifying event, it was also politically expedient. You have Turkey that was in a nationalist ferment and the Turks were trying to establish their nation after the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, but in the midst of the Anatolian Plateau was this large group of Armenians who did not speak the same language, did not practice the same religion, practice a different culture.  So they were in the way.  So the Turks decided to eliminate the Armenians, a genocide of Armenians, that was politically expedient.  The Turks did not necessarily care about Armenians and Armenia or in Syria or anywhere else.  That’s very different from the Nazis attitude toward the Jews, which was not politically expedient.  In fact, it was inexpedient.  It was crazy to kill people who so contributed to their culture, to their economy.  I mean, let’s not forget, the Jews of Germany paid taxes, contributed to the arts and science of Germany.  It was economic nonsense to eliminate them.  So that view of the Jews as being a disease, like malaria, like AIDS, that has to be eliminated everywhere or else it will come back, that was unique.

So I wanted to take the one that was the defining genocide, that has also proven the most resistant—because in a sense, it’s the closest to our home, I mean, to Westerners.  Darfur, Rwanda, they are in foreign locales, we manage to distance ourselves.  And as I said, there’s also less government involvement, whereas the Holocaust, the involvement of an entire state against one of its own people, that was also unique.  So it’s the one I wanted to tackle because it strikes me as being the defining one.

Question: How long did it take you to write the book?

Yann Martel:  Well, off and on, that amount of time, but I’d also say a lifetime.  I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust.  You know, my experience of growing up is that you are born like a little puzzle piece and very quickly you were taught and things snap into place, so language snaps into place, basic arithmetic snaps into place.  So your conscious is like a puzzle that’s expanding slowly.  You are taught history, and history is part of, you know, building your identity, your social identity, your political identity, so most national myths snap, snap into place. 

One of the things, war snaps into place.  War is very simple for a child to understand, it’s, you know, you hate someone, you go to war with them, you go to fight with them, it snaps into place.

One piece that didn’t snap into place was the Holocaust.  It always stayed with me as a, leaving me with a sense of puzzlement... and so that stayed with me.  So I’ve always periodically returned to the Holocaust, reading the books about it, watching the movies.  The first time I backpacked around Europe, I visited Auschwitz.  And eventually as an artist, I said, “Well, what can I say about it?”  Not being Jewish, not being Eastern European, so being a complete outsider to it, how can I contribute to it?

So I eventually a few years ago, essentially in 2001 actually, I decided, well, I’d like to write something about it.  But then the success of "Life of Pi" kept me busy for a while.  But it took me roughly, roughly five years.

Question: Why use literary devices, such as a play within the novel? 

Yann Martel:  The needs of the story. The Holocaust is a mountain from which it’s very easy to fall off.  So I used all the tools, all the climbing tools I can think of, so, there is a play within it.  There’s also a lot of literary references, to Flaubert, to Diderot, to Beckett.  Specifically the play?  Why?  Because I think we tend, when we think of the Holocaust, we tend to see it in very historical terms, which is a way of distancing ourselves.  We think of the Holocaust, we think of Jews, Poles, Germans, Eastern Europe, which for most of us, means "very far away."  Not many of us live in the hinterlands of Poland.  I didn’t want that distance.

So if I set it as a play, stages can be everywhere, there’s theater all over the world.  So as soon as I say a play, people see a stage, and that stage can be anywhere.  That’s useful for me, if I don’t want you to distance yourself historically.  Also, plays are inherently oral, in plays, people speak.  I wanted orality. Why?  Because language ultimately or originally was something oral.  And I find the orality of language is where it’s most powerful.  People are most powerful when they are speaking.  There they are most unself-conscious.  Writing is very much an artifice, you write and then you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.  It can become a highly manipulated, manipulative medium.  Orality less so.

So I noticed in my research on the Holocaust, the things that were the most moving for me, were the things that people said.  Whether the victimizers, the Nazis, the guards, or the victims, so I wanted also something oral. To me, that was the truest remembrance of frightened people, are what they say.  Great tragedy can be compressed in things that people say.  Whereas once you get into discursive prose, then it’s endless and it can lose people, because it’s so long.  You know, the tomes of history on the Holocaust can go on for thousands of pages.  Whereas spoken, its summation, it can be summed up in very few words, in fact.  So I wanted orality, I wanted stage, ergo a play.  Also, the play is fragmented, you get only bits of the play.  And to me, they’re like little peepholes onto a greater reality, so you look into that peephole, and you have to start imagining what surrounded that peephole.

Recorded April 13, 2010