Award-winning author Yann Martel charms York audience


Above: Yann Martel, right, and partner Alice Kuipers

It was fitting that the evening with Booker Prize-winner Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, should begin quietly on Dec. 4. He is unassuming, reserved, almost humble, yet entirely approachable and shyly grateful for the many compliments he received while on the Keele campus.

Right: Martel, left, with John Unrau

Martel entered the room at York’s Stong College unobtrusively for a reception prior to his appearance at the Canadian Writers in Person series. With him were his partner, the outgoing and as-yet unpublished writer Alice Kuipers, and the series organizer, Atkinson English Professor John Unrau. Martel and Kuipers had arrived that day from Saskatoon, where Martel is writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library.

At 7:30pm, Martel took the stage in packed-to-overflowing Stedman Lecture Hall D. Just beforehand, Unrau greeted the students taking his Canadian Writers in Person course and told them their marked essays were on a table at the front of the room. Immediately, Martel sauntered over and began leafing through and reading the essays – much to the audience’s amusement.

“Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has been translated into 38 languages and has been on the top bestseller list for over a year,” said Unrau. “He is easily the best known and best loved writer in the world today.”

Martel responded: “I will start by saying it’s absolute nonsense what John said – but nice to hear.” He then turned to Chapter 17 of Life of Pi, saying, “This chapter is when Pi [the protagonist] discovers Christianity. Pi is quite open-minded when it comes to religions….”

There was the quiet rustle of turning pages from the students and ardent fans in the audience, who had arrived for the evening equipped with one or more copies of the book. “It’s so funny to read this chapter when all your books are open,” said Martel, clearly amused.

He proceeded to read, beginning with, “First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in the impression made by the first. I owe to Hinduism that original landscape of my religious imagination….” Afterward, he held a lively question and answer session with the audience (see More News).

Life of Pi (Knopf Canada, 2001) is the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, who ends up in a lifeboat as the only human survivor after a cargo ship, carrying his family and various animals, sinks in the Pacific Ocean. As the book jacket says, “The crew of the surviving vessel consists of a hyena, an orang-utan, a zebra with a broken leg, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger and Pi Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy. The stage is set for one of the most extraordinary pieces of literary fiction in recent years….”

Born in Spain in 1963, Martel won the Booker Prize in 2002 for Life of Pi. His work includes The Facts Behind The Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories (1993) and Self: A Novel (1996). He has just ended a year as Samuel Fischer-Gastprofessor at the Free University of Berlin.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature.

Below: Audience ready to listen to Yann Martel