In Conversation Authors

Stories let you be someone else: Yann Martel

Magical thinking ‘Great novels tell you more about reality, so does religion’.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Most Indian book-lovers are likely to have either read the book or seen the film. That’s the scale of popularity attained by Life of Pi, the fabulist tale of a boy from Pondicherry marooned in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. Yann Martel, the author of this Booker-winning novel, was in Delhi recently on his way to a couple of literature festivals. In a freewheeling conversation, the Canadian novelist spoke about, among other things, religion, fake news, and what prompted him to send a book every two weeks to his prime minister. Excerpts:

You were a philosophy student in college. How did your grounding in philosophy shape your fiction?

My approach has always been philosophical. You can see that in Life of Pi. The kind of questions I ask about meaning and interpretation of reality are quite philosophical, and it has influenced my approach to stories. Of course, stories are a way of questioning reality, and I just came to that via philosophy.

But you’ve never written a philosophical novel as such.

None of my books is are explicitly philosophical, but there is a questioning of things. The premise of philosophy is that you ask questions, whereas the premise of art is effect. Aesthetics is about beauty, and beauty doesn’t necessarily question things. The reason I write the books I do is that I want to understand something. In Life of Pi, I wanted to understand religious thinking, how it works, what it means. In Beatrice and Virgil, I tried to understand why we tell the stories we do about the Holocaust. A novel for me starts with a question, with trying to understand something, and I do it through telling a story.

How did India spark the idea for Life of Pi?

It was during my second trip to India that I worked on Life of Pi. I didn’t come here meaning to work on Life of Pi. I had wanted to work on a book set in Portugal. But I didn’t know how to tell the story, so I put it aside. Then I got restless. I didn’t know what else to do, so I opened my eyes and began to see what was in front of me, and what I saw were all these benign manifestations of religion that I had never noticed before. I became interested in the magical thinking that is religion, and I thought I should try and understand it, and the result was Life of Pi. I landed in India on December 31, 1999, and I stayed on for six months.

Instead of 1999, had you been writing Life of Pi in the India of 2018, would you have put a cow on the boat?

It’s true I needed an Indian animal, and I chose the animals I did for their symbolic resonance. The previous reincarnation of the tiger was a rhinoceros, but I soon realised that I couldn’t have a rhino because it’s a herbivore. How can a herbivore survive for so long in the Pacific?

But you picked a zebra for the boat. Why not a cow?

Well, the zebra died. If I’d had a cow, it would have died too. I needed an animal that would survive a long time and pose a threat. I didn’t think a cow would pose much of a threat.

You have maintained that there is always a theological dimension to storytelling. How do you understand the recent phenomenon of people believing in fake news stories? Is this some kind of a perverse return to religion in godless consumer societies?

Well, there are many things that you can do with stories. Stories can be lies. Fake news is a lie that can still be compelling. In fake news, you construct an alternative reading of reality, and you can do that. What’s interesting about the great religions is that they can sustain their narrative. In the case of fake news, however, reality catches up. In fake news, you are living in a state of denial. But religious thinking is not a form of denial, it’s a reinterpretation of reality that endures.

People believe in them despite suffering. It’s especially astounding when you see the degree of adversity some religious people face. For instance, how Jews can still consider themselves the chosen people despite the Holocaust is a tribute to how the magical thinking of religion can endure despite massive suffering.

There is this famous line in Life of Pi, that it’s a story that will make you believe in god. Do you believe in god?

In a very broad way, yes, but not in a denominational god. I wasn’t nurtured religiously at all. But philosophically, I believe that there is meaning. And that’s a choice. I like to compare religion to a well. Each well is different, but they all tap into this ground water of faith. I can’t take any religion literally. I can’t literally believe in Jesus, Buddha or Krishna. To me they are all expressions of the same fundamental reality, which you only get to by choice, by making a leap.

You had a certain vision of Life of Pi when you were writing it. How closely does the film replicate that vision?

The book and the film are very different. First of all, Life of Pi is a first-person narrative. You never see Pi. And I never describe Pi. But you see things through Pi’s eyes, you are looking out. But in a movie, it’s hard to do that. So you see Pi, and right away the perspective, the point of view, becomes very different. Also, the narrative process is different, but I did like the movie visually.

Was it how you visualised it in your head when writing?

Well, the life boat wasn’t like I had imagined it, but fair enough, they had done their research carefully. As for the tiger, frankly all tigers look the same to me. The film didn’t resemble my book in terms of the narrative impact — the book was more of a rumination, and the tiger or the lack of it was more of an outcrop of that rumination about reality. That claim about this being a story that can make you believe in God — it’s about the choice of story.

So the book’s meaning depends on what you choose to believe?

Pi points out in the end that there is a choice to be made between two stories. Which is the better one — that’s the key question. So the proof of god in Life of Pi is not what happens to Pi in the Pacific. That he triumphs over adversity proves nothing. The proof of god is in how you choose to interpret reality — with animals or without. In an equivalent way, you can choose to either believe or not to believe [in god]. So why not believe more?

Sure, don’t believe in fake news religiously, but you could believe in something that gives more depth and more meaning to reality. Great novels can tell you something more about reality, and so does religion.

From 2007 to 2011, you sent more than a 100 books to the then Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper. Why?

Harper had a very narrow vision of what it means to be a citizen. He is one of these little men who see people only for their utility, what they can contribute to the economy. I did not like his way of addressing citizens as customers rather than as citizens. So I thought, this man has a terrible lack of imagination, how can I change that? I decided to send him a book every two weeks. Use the power of the word. Great books have that power. They can change you if you read them.

Many people read fiction until they are 21-22, and then they say, oh, these are just made-up stories, it’s not real. So you stop reading for about 40 years. Then when you are pushed out of the corporation, you are retired, you have nothing to do, then you pick up a Stephen King or a James Patterson, you find them entertaining, and then you start reading again. So you have a bunch of men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who don’t read, and the problem with that, unfortunately, is that these empowered white males rule our world.

If they never read fiction, I don’t know how they will ever know their other. To give you an example, I sent Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to Harper. It’s a story of a 12-year-old black girl in a totally screwed up family. Now, for an empowered white male, which I know is what Harper was, it’s a great book to read and learn from. It’s what great stories do. They let you be someone else. If you never read a book of fiction, how can you know the other? Harper was once asked what was his favourite book, and he said, The Guinness Book of World Records. I can understand this answer if you are a 14-year-old boy. But a 50-something prime minister?!

What’s your next novel about?

It’s an alternate version of the Trojan War. Western civilisation is based on two things — the Gospels, and Homer. The two foundational books of the West are both fiction, and yet we have this illusion that we are a rational people. I find it interesting that in this world that is so dominated by rationality, the foundations are in fact purely fictional and we don’t recognise that. So I hope to explore how fictions become reality by revisiting the Trojan War.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 1:03:57 PM |

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