‘People are cynical about people,’ says Yann Martel, the Booker Prize winner, prime minister botherer (more of that later) and guest at EAFL this week. On the phone to Time Out from his home in Saskatoon, Canada, he’s explaining why his new book, Beatrice and Virgil, has a monkey and a donkey as protagonists. ‘If I wrote about a Muslim accountant, people would project what they think about accountants and Muslims onto that character,’ he says. ‘Whereas if it’s a chimpanzee who’s an accountant, there would be a suspension of disbelief, because you don’t get too many chimpanzee accountants. If I use animals, people know about them but they don’t know too much about them. So it’s useful.’
This isn’t the first time Martel has used animals to tell a story. His 2002 Booker Prize-winning breakthrough, Life of Pi, sees protagonist Pi Patel survive 227 days stranded at sea with only a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company. Beatrice and Virgil is his first novel since then, but he’s hardly been dawdling: there was a short-story collection, We Ate the Children Last, and for the past three years he’s been working on a time-consuming project entitled ‘What is Stephen Harper Reading?’. Incensed by the paltry funds that Canada’s government pumps into the arts, Martel sends Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper a book every two weeks that promotes ‘stillness’, accompanied by an explanatory note. Martel would like Harper to expand his mind by reading these books, rather than indulging in ‘busied importance’. (You can see the notes, and any responses, at www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca).
Martel originally said Beatrice and Virgil would be out in autumn 2008; now it won’t be published until April this year. What took so long? ‘The project itself,’ he responds. ‘I noticed that the Holocaust is generally approached in a non-fiction way. I wanted to approach it artistically and ask why we shy away from throwing our imagination at it.’ This required much research and thinking, with Martel choosing to retell it through a conversation between the titular monkey and donkey (who, incidentally, are motifs on a man’s dress shirt). We can imagine the thoroughness with which Martel ruminated just by our conversation, in which his charming verbosity takes him off on tangents from Tony Blair (‘he didn’t go in there to be corrupt; he made mistakes’) to masses of by-heart facts about WW2.
It’s almost ironic, then, when he contends that fictional approaches to history have brevity as an advantage over non-fiction. ‘Fiction can go to the essence of an event,’ he argues. ‘To read up on Stalinism would require a high level of interest and the patience to read many volumes to understand what Stalin did to Russia. [But] every kid that reads Animal Farm will know in essence what happened there without the billions of details that are proper to history.’
Martel will spend the next few months touring the book, but his Stephen Harper project will continue with the help of some literary friends in Canada. Despite having never received a personal reply from Harper, Martel says he won’t stop any time soon. ‘It’s not to him that I’ll make my point,’ Martel insists. ‘But I’ll make my point. To lead people you need vision, and vision comes from reading fiction. In art we examine life; you increase your empathy.’ He explains how one book he sent, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, enables the reader to see life through the eyes of an abused black girl. ‘If you have a white, middle-class male who hasn’t read a novel since high school, I worry about where their vision comes from. How do they know what it means to be someone else?’
A main concern of Martel’s is how modern society prioritises vocational training over the arts. Does he worry this will only get worse? ‘Culture will always be relevant,’ he decides. ‘Some people are being culturally disempowered: they’re working drones and we’re breeding them to be frustrated, but things will come round again. I believe in revolution. If things dip too bad, there’ll be a revolution and we’ll get back to a better way of being.’