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Powell’s Q&A: Yann Martel

Describe your latest book.
My latest book is a novel, Beatrice and Virgil. It tells the story of the encounter between a writer, Henry, and a taxidermist. The taxidermist has a shop that's like a lost world. He's also an aspiring playwright and he shows Henry the play he's been working on for many years. It features two characters, Beatrice and Virgil. The taxidermist is a difficult man, distant and nearly rude. But Beatrice and Virgil call to Henry, and he keeps coming back to see the taxidermist. That's the plot. The theme is the trauma of the Holocaust and how to represent it.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Dante. His Divine Comedy. An Italian classic from the 14th century. Sounds boring and stuffy? It's not. It's a road trip through hell, purgatory, and heaven that makes Mad Max look like a fairy tale. It's elegant, entertaining, and fiercely moral.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I've been sending the Prime Minister of Canada a book every two weeks with an accompanying letter for the last three years to show him what he's missing out on by not being a reader (and what Canada is missing out on by having a politician with such a narrow vision). So I'm always searching for good books that show him what the artful word can do. Recently I read Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. It's an absolutely brilliant novel on colonialism in Africa.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I did a reading once in Berne from Life of Pi and, afterwards, a woman asked the following question: "In your novel, the boy feeds the tiger, trains the tiger, cleans up after the tiger, and then the tiger leaves him without saying good-bye. Is your novel a metaphor on marriage?" I never, ever thought of the travails of conjugality when writing Life of Pi. This reader's question showed me how the intent of the author can be so beautifully taken over by the intent of the reader.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
Fahrenheit is too retrograde, Kelvin is too scientific, and Celsius is too reasonable, so I'd go for the feel on my skin.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Picasso for his creative exuberance. Matisse for the dazzle of his palette. Henry Moore for the endless mystery of his forms.

If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
An astronaut from the Apollo XVII mission, so that I could spend three days on the Moon. I can think of no greater act of poetry.

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
Thank you.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Great Books on the Holocaust

I've always been interested in the Holocaust. It's not just a fading tragedy to me. It continues to be a dark beacon.

Survival in Auschwitz, a memoir by Primo Levi
One of the foundation stones of our knowledge of the Holocaust.

I Shall Bear Witness, the diaries of Victor Klemperer
Klemperer was a German Jewish professor who kept a diary from 1933 to 1945. It's the Nazi inferno seen from a daily perspective, the step-by-step descent of a country into insanity.

The Investigation, a play by Peter Weiss
A lesser-known play by the author of Marat/Sade, The Investigation is a play based entirely on transcripts from the 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials (yes, 1963-65, so late!). It makes for chilling, mesmerizing reading.

See Under: Love, a novel by David Grossman
This lyrical novel by the Israeli writer tries to escape dealing with the Holocaust in purely factual terms and instead does it through the language of metaphor.

The Emigrants, a novel by W. G. Sebald
A masterpiece. It circles the Holocaust without ever naming it. A unique novel.

÷ ÷ ÷

The award-winning author of four previous books, Yann Martel was born in Spain in 1963. He studied philosophy at Trent University, worked at odd jobs — tree planter, dishwasher, security guard — and travelled widely before turning to writing. He was awarded the Journey Prize for the title story in The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. His second novel, Life of Pi, won the 2002 Man Booker, among other prizes. Yann Martel lives in Saskatoon with the writer Alice Kuipers and their son.

Books mentioned in this post

Yann Martel is the author of Beatrice and Virgil

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