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Yann Martel

Yann Martel is the author of The High Mountains of Portugal and Life of Pi, the #1 international bestseller and winner of the 2002 Man Booker (among many other prizes). He is also[…]

Allegorical fiction can take very complex realities and convey them in powerful, emotional, psychologically accurate way.

Question: Why do you write allegories?

Yann Martel: rn Because I think that’s the forte of art.  What art does marvelously is rnit takes very complex realities and it can go to their heart, it can go rnto their essence, and convey it in a way that’s both very powerful and rnemotionally or psychologically accurate.  So I’ll give you a perfect rnexample of a great allegory, "Animal Farm," by George Orwell.  Which rntakes on what Stalin did to the Russian people, and that’s a vast, rnsprawling complex story.  With "Animal Farm," which is this delightful rnallegory, delightful fable that takes place on an English farm, you get rnnone of the heavy facts of history, but you get the essence.  So it’s a rnstory of this commune set up by animals and slowly things go wrong.  Andrn it captures exactly in spirit what happened to the Russian people underrn Stalin.  So it’s a very light, powerful medium for discussing very rncomplex realities.

Question: Why look at the Holocaustrn in allegorical terms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Why not rnfocus on a more recent genocide? 

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

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

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

Yann rnMartel:  Well, off and on, that amount of time, but I’d also say a rnlifetime.  I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust.  You know, my rnexperience of growing up is that you are born like a little puzzle piecern and very quickly you were taught and things snap into place, so rnlanguage snaps into place, basic arithmetic snaps into place.  So your rnconscious is like a puzzle that’s expanding slowly.  You are taught rnhistory, and history is part of, you know, building your identity, your rnsocial identity, your political identity, so most national myths snap, rnsnap into place. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded April 13, 2010