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Life After Pi

Author and alumnus Yann Martel returns to Trent and discusses new book

Yann MartelYann Martel looks very much at home as he sits on a Traill College railing overlooking the City of Peterborough. It is his first visit back to the University since winning the Man Booker Prize for his novel Life of Pi in 2002 but in spite of the time passed and all of the success he has been afforded, Mr. Martel still feels like he belongs here.

"Trent is a very personable place," Mr. Martel said during an informal discussion before his public appearance at the Peterborough Public Library on March 31. "I had a great university experience at Trent. I spent five years here and I found it a wonderfully flexible place. I never felt boxed in here."

Taking ideas and writing stories that challenge convention and reach outside the box is something for which Mr. Martel is becoming increasingly well known. In Life of Pi, his most successful novel to date, which is currently being made into a major motion picture by FOX, Mr. Martel challenges the reader's assumptions and weaves a tale of two possible stories – one involving talking animals, and one without.

"If you read the novel well, the argument in the novel is that life is an interpretation – you don't just derive life from fact... Life is a story; it's a story you weave together using many, many things," Mr. Martel said.

With a degree in Philosophy from Trent, Mr. Martel is in a good position to question interpretation and to ask "the big questions" about life. These are questions that he also likes to address and explore in each of his novels, starting with his first book, Self, which is set, in part, in Peterborough and draws on his undergraduate days at Trent University, to Life of Pi, and even into his next novel, entitled A Twentieth Century Shirt.

"Each of the books I write is an attempt to understand something," Mr. Martel said.

Mr. Martel's next novel will be an effort to explore the Holocaust, an event that he has always found fascinating, especially from his perspective as a writer since it is a topic rarely addressed in fiction. According to Mr. Martel this is because there is such an intense fear of disrespecting the event.

Like Pi, A Twentieth Century Shirt will use the literary technique of anthropomorphism by assigning voices and human characteristics to animals. In his new novel, however, a talking monkey and a talking donkey will not be on a life raft but rather they will be confronted with a holocaust-type event while living on the landscape of a shirt.

"I'm trying a different approach," Mr. Martel explained, likening his attempt to George Orwell's dealing with Stalinism in Animal Farm. "There are no Germans and no Jews, but it is all about the Holocaust." 

According to Mr. Martel, the key sentence in his new novel revolves around the question of how the characters will speak of the "horrors" when they are over – how are we going to talk about this? The exploration of the answer, which could involve stories, memorials, or even jokes, provides an insight into Mr. Martel's own approach to writing about the topic and his feeling that we need to write about and discuss these events or they will just get lost in history.

Mr. Martel picked up on discussing this new novel during his talk to over 200 people at the Peterborough Public Library. For over an hour, he described his writing approach and read from the first chapter, after which he took questions from the audience and then stayed to sign autographs.

Asked for his thoughts on why Trent seems to produce a relatively large number of successful writers, he returned to the flexibility that he associates with this time at Trent. "It seemed to me like a place that would not put you in a mould," he said, then referring to the popular writer-in-residence position at Champlain College, added, "I'd love to come back and do something at Trent."

Overall, Mr. Martel's return to Peterborough, and to Trent, was a triumphant one which enriched both the University and the wider community. It was also an opportunity for Mr. Martel to return to his alma mater and experience once again the sense of belonging he was first introduced to during his undergrad days at Trent.

Posted April 24, 2006





























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