Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

Chimpanzee Smokes Cigar

An interview with Booker Prize winner Yann Martel

Montreal writer Yann Martel won the 2002 Booker Prize for his novel Life of Pi (Knopf Canada), the tale of an Indian boy named Pi who survives two hundred and twenty-seven days alone on a raft in the Pacific with a Royal Bengal tiger. Linda Leith, the founder and artistic director of the Blue Metropolis literary festival, reached Martel earlier this year at the Freie Universität in Berlin, where he was teaching a course on animals in literature.

Linda Leith: Pi’s life, after his voyage, will never be the same. Has your life changed since the Booker?

Yann Martel: Oh god, yes. Well, yes and no. On the one hand, not at all. Whatever strengths I had, have remained; whatever weaknesses I had, have remained. You don’t feel fame the way you feel loneliness or happiness. You experience it as something on the outside coming in and not something that grips you at your core. Fame is emails, it’s interviews, it’s invitations to festivals, it’s offers from foreign publishers. All of it wonderful, but it’s really like getting a lot of mail. It’s also made me money. It’s gotten rid of the spectre of poverty, which is terrifying for an artist, because as you know, we put everything into it and if you’re not careful you’re forty-five, fifty and have no skills. You’ve written five novels that haven’t been published and that’s it, you’re screwed. That’s really scary. So I have this level of success and I’m really thankful for that and I seem to live in a state of perpetual gratitude . . .

I have been able to go a lot of places I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise . . . I did a tour of zoos. I did readings in London Zoo, then Edinburgh—I inaugurated the new tiger enclosure—and then Dublin. I’ve just been invited to spend two months at a residence south of Florence . . . I’m in the midst of this wonderful squall, and it will pass. It has to pass, because I haven’t written a word since [last] October.

LL: Does a novel change as it’s being written?

YM: I’m one of these writers who, right from the start, knows exactly where his book is going . . . With Pi, I knew it would have a hundred chapters. I knew it would have three parts. I knew what the last chapter would be. Everything was clear to me. Other writers, I gather, do it differently. They start a scene or a character and they just go, not knowing where they’re going. For me, that would be like being an architect and starting a building not knowing if it was a hospital or a hotel or a university. There’s an element of surprise that has to do with turns of phrases, perhaps, or sometimes the order will change, something will get dropped. There aren’t too many surprises.

LL: Do you believe in a happy ending?

YM: I wouldn’t quite phrase it that way. I would say I believe in leaving the reader with something. I believe art can transform, and I don’t particularly think I’d want to transform someone for the worse. I wouldn’t see the point of writing a work that would prompt a reader to commit suicide. However, I wouldn’t particularly want my readers to run out and buy ice cream, either.

LL: You have a dual identity, with a French name and French as your first language, but an English education, and of course you write in English. Do you think this affects your writing?

YM: Oh, definitely . . . And not only that. Spanish, too. I was born in Spain and spent four summers in Madrid and about two and a half years in Costa Rica. That’s the marvel of English. It is a language that is subject to influence . . . It takes foreign words that it likes—“sheik,” for example, and “Zeitgeist” and run “amok,” which is Indonesian—and it adopts them. Whereas French—and I don’t know why this is—but French is like Catholicism. It’s more exclusive. French is far less subject to influence. I think French takes the view that penetration by other languages is like sodomy . . .

One thing I can definitely say is that my language is not clichéd. It may be that my ideas are clichéd, but the actual language isn’t, just because I wasn’t raised with clichés in English. You know, “like a thief in the night” or “you’ll stick out like a sore thumb”; I never use those expressions, because the clichés that I learned are French clichés. I have a certain distance from English.

LL: I know you’re interested in animals, in writing about animals, in animals as characters. Is there an animal—or, perhaps, more than one animal—that you would associate in some way with Montreal?

YM: I want to say a cat for some reason, but a fat Sunday cat, not a standoffish cat. And not a dog. We’re too intelligent to be a dog. A cigar-smoking sloth, but . . . more energetic, because we’re actually quite enterprising. Well, maybe a chimpanzee. A cigar-smoking chimpanzee.