The Truth in Tall Tales

Exposing a fascination for creatures from all walks of life Yann Martel dishes with Andrea Miller about the importance of faith, stories, and making sense of the world. 

Photo by Danielle Schaub

Yann Martel

Yann Martel won the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Life of Pi, an epic novel about a Hindu-Christian-Muslim boy who spends 227 days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Early in 2010 Martel released his third novel, Beatrice and Virgil, a holocaust allegory that features a donkey and a monkey who travel across a shirt.

You once said that animals are living, breathing mystery. What is it about them that made you say that?

What I find amazing about animals is that, first of all, they’re so different from us. As I’m speaking to you, my parrot is on my knee. Can you hear him? He’s this silly little guy who doesn’t have arms. He has a beak. He has two funny feet and wings. He looks so different and yet, he’s alive. The main thing is, though, that as human beings we are very proud of our intellect. We are proud of our language, culture, the science and technology we have developed, the gray matter between our ears. But animals don’t have our intellect and yet they get by. In fact, they get by better than we do. It seems that with our intellect we are slowly destroying the planet. Animals, on the other hand, sometimes in quite a brutal way, reach an equilibrium with nature. I look an animal in its eyes and I wonder, What is it thinking? What is its purpose? And then the animal acts kind of like a mirror. It makes me ask, What is the purpose of my intellect? This animal gets by. I’m not sure I will. It doesn’t have an existentialist crisis. No animal does.

So what drives you to write about animals?

Technical reasons. I’ve found that if I use animals, it makes it easier to suspend my readers’ disbelief. We tend to know our own species very well, so we’re cynical about human characters. That means it’s easier for me to tell a story about a dentist who is a donkey than it is for me to tell a story about a dentist who is just a regular person. Also, I find it refreshing to get away from humans. We are, after all, the only species that lives in such isolation from other species. Now, you live in a city, don’t you? So how many other species besides your own have you seen today? As you were walking to work, you might have noticed some pigeons, maybe some squirrels…

No squirrels. Just pigeons.

And do you have a pet at home?

No, though I’d love to.

So today you only saw some pigeons. Any other animal in nature would have been surrounded by and aware of dozens of species.

Can you tell me about the book you’re working on now?

It’s two books actually: a novel and an essay, each approaching the same subject in different ways. They’ll be published in one volume, back to back, upside down. In this way readers are empowered to choose which one they want to read first. Do they prefer to use their reason by reading an essay, or do they prefer to use their imagination by reading a novel?

There have been a lot of books about the holocaust. What’s different about your approach?

Most fiction dealing with the holocaust uses a single literary code, that of realism. It’s about Jews and it’s set in Europe between 1933 and 1945 and it almost always follows the same narrative arc. The problem with that is that in order for us to deal with this horrible, evil event, we have to be able to approach it in many ways. So what I am trying to do with this book, both in the essay and more obviously in the novel, is to take a non-realistic, allegorical approach. This is something very few writers have tried.

One reviewer described Life of Pi as a theology of stories, and you later took to describing your work in that way. What do you mean when you use that phrase?

A good story and a good religion work in the same way. It’s called “suspension of disbelief” in fiction. It’s called “faith” in religion. A story only works if we let it work, if we open our hearts to it. The saddest thing on earth is people who have no stories. You find a lot of people like that here in the West—people who are profoundly cynical and who have no imagination. Often they don’t read anything at all. They just watch TV and do their jobs. What gives sense to living is some sort of faith—religious, romantic, or political—and faith can’t be had through reason.

What kind of religious faith do you have?

I am not particularly denominational. I think all religions are trying to approach the same mystery and that there are different religions for the same reason that there are different cuisines. There’s Chinese food, there’s Italian and Mexican. They all feed the stomach, just in different ways. What I find interesting, though, is that religions always tell stories. Religions always have characters and the characters tell tales. Both the Buddha and Jesus, for example, taught by telling stories or parables. So that’s what’s interesting about people with religious faith—they interpret life through a story. When people believe in a particular religion, everything comes to them through the story of that religion. That story becomes the tool they use to make sense of the world.

Could you tell me a bit about your yoga practice?

It’s sort of dwindled now because I’ve been so busy, but I did yoga for years. I used to do an hour and a half every day. I started with Shivananda yoga and then I started doing Iyengar and ashtanga. That was one thing that lost me. I had too many gurus and I started picking and choosing from the different practices, which is a good way to get lost. That’s how the ego starts to swell. But I love yoga. Yoga is one of the greatest discoveries of my life.

Are you planning to get back into it?

I’d love to. One problem with getting back into it, though, is that yoga is not just an exercise. It’s a whole way of life, one that doesn’t fit into our capitalist society because it’s not considered productive. Yogic breathing, pranayama, for example—what use does our society have for that? If your lifestyle is typical of a Western person—getting up and working nine hours a day—it’s hard to fit yoga into your life. The same thing is true with meditation; it’s hard to work in, but we’ve got to try.

How did your volunteer work at a palliative care unit change the way you live?

It was transformative. We tend to live in a society that is in denial of death. Most of us are not religious, so we don’t encounter the religious allegories and metaphors of death. We live longer and longer and we die in hospitals. So we live very far from death, which we think makes us happier, but living like that makes us forget to value life. It’s the very fact that life will end that makes us value it, and not waste it with frivolity. What palliative care did to me was blow away a lot of triviality. It’s hard to be frivolous after you spend time with people who are dying. After that you tend to naturally focus on things that are important.