When Booker Prize-winning author Yann Martel addressed a Jerusalem audience at a last-minute speaking engagement at Tmol Shilshom caf this month, he seemed genuinely surprised by the large turnout.
"Thank you all so much for coming at such short notice," he told audience members. "I'm amazed."
It's as if Martel had momentarily forgotten what a phenomenon he continues to be as a result of his bestselling novel Life of Pi, and what a rare occurrence it is to have an international literary star of his magnitude in Israel. Not only did Life of Pi win Britain's top literary honor, but it's been translated successfully into over 30 languages, including Hebrew.
In Israel this month for the translated publication of his first book of short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (Kinneret) as well as to travel and do research for his next book, the Canadian author seemed eager to discuss (and perhaps to test out) the kernels of his next project with the audience - "a work in progress," he explains, "on the Holocaust."
This announcement raises a few eyebrows among those who might have had different expectations of Martel. There seems to be a rather large chasm between Pi Patel, Martel's shipwrecked multi-faith character from his popular novel, and a book on genocide.
Indeed, it is a vastly different endeavor, and as Martel is quick to admit, an audacious one. Over the course of his three weeks in Israel, he spent nearly a week exploring the library and grounds of Yad Vashem. His goal: to do research - a prerequisite for him in writing any book, he says. ("No event is locked up in one single museum," he concedes, "but Yad Vashem is the largest Holocaust authority in the world.")
So it's no surprise he chose to meet me in one of the museum's parks, overlooking the hills of Jerusalem. He speaks with an enunciated elocution, and at 42, looks at least ten years younger. At times he speaks so fast and with such enthusiasm (especially about religion) that you could convince yourself he's pondering these topics for the first time. Of course, anyone who's read Life of Pi knows this isn't true.
The book tells the enchanting story of a 16-year-old boy from Pondicherry, India, with a penchant for collecting religions. (As Pi reasons, "Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.") Having lost his family in a shipwreck, he finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific for 227 days with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, and a 200-kilogram Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The odd cast of characters and setting develop into a monumental story of survival, religion and, most of all, faith.
"I attempt books I don't know much about. Each book I write is like a small university to me, and after I finish it, I feel I've graduated," Martel explains.
Listening to Martel describe the novel's evolution, it becomes clear why he feels this way.
"I wrote Pi at a point of crisis," he relates. "I was 33, and I had written two books that went nowhere. I went to India planning to live off of very little and concentrate on my next novel, which was to be set in Portugal."
"Unfortunately, the novel died in my imagination. I thought of returning to Canada, but stayed instead to enjoy Goa, and soon opened my mind and my heart to where I was. I was struck by how many animals there were in India, and in Hindu mythology in particular. Animals [like the elephant god, Ganesha] are very present in the temples, and the proximity of gods and animals struck me."
Martel spent the next six months in southern India, "absorbing Indianness." His research encompassed everything from zoology, biology, animal psychology, religion (reading the Koran, the Bible, Hindu scripts) and even shipwreck and castaway stories.
"It took me two years to research for Pi," he explains, "but I had a very clear idea of what I was writing. I took my time, but it was an easy book for me to write."
That "easy" book took him four years altogether.
It's been over three years now since the Pi phenomenon took the world by storm, and it put Martel's writing on hold ("I suppose my writing is rusty now"). One senses he may be daunted by expectation. "This [current] book is different from Pi. I'm exploring metaphors to see what the imagination can do with genocide. At the moment I'm stumped, though. I have a less clear vision of where I want to go."
IT'S HARD to imagine where Martel does in fact plan to take this next novel. Not only does he attempt to conjure one of history's greatest tragedies in a light manner ("I want to attach the Holocaust to objects - a shirt for instance - something universal, daily, ordinary, to link horror with something completely banal"), he does so through conversations between a monkey and donkey. It's an unlikely proposition. But so too, at one point, was the story of a boy and a tiger in a lifeboat.
"Animals made [Pi's story] easier to tell," Martel insists. "People are interested in wild animals. I used it as a device to draw them in. Animals also have great symbolic resonance. Lord of the Rings is an invention, for instance, but when Tolkien wrote it, he was also thinking of the Second World War. Bringing in whimsy or fantasy is a way to counterbalance the heaviness of the events being discussed: the horror of the Holocaust juxtaposed with a fanciful world. In writing this novel, I'm asking where these two worlds meet. It may not work. I may conclude you can't tell a fantastical story about the Holocaust."
Certainly novels about the Holocaust can be successful. Martel names some of those he's familiar with, including David Grossman's See Under: Love, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated and Art Spiegelman's Maus.
But Martel may be treading on thinner ice with his work in progress. If Life of Pi is any indication of the novel to come, the question of objectivity when discussing the past may come into play.
In Pi's story, one set of facts exists - a boy loses his family and must survive on the sea for many months in the face of dangerous obstacles - but two different stories can be superimposed on the facts laid before the reader. Life is essentially an interpretation, and the audience is left to choose "the better story," as Martel puts it. History is not defined by actions, but in retelling them. In discussing the Holocaust, this can be dangerous territory, especially when it comes to the possible consequences of reimagining the events that took place.
"There is no objective history. The Holocaust is remembered as a horror because the Germans lost. If they had won, you wouldn't be here today and there would be a museum of Judaism rather than a Holocaust memorial," says Martel, looking toward the impressive museum to his left. "Events would have taken on a different meaning. They are only made alive through storytelling."
"Don't misunderstand me, though," he quickly clarifies. "The facts [of history] are there. You can't deny them. If you do, you are acting in bad faith. [Holocaust] revisionists, for example, are acting in bad faith. Personally, I think they're probably people with miserable childhoods who hate their mothers."
Martel concedes the danger in retelling such tales but is adamant that the most important thing is for a dialogue on the subject to remain open.
"I believe that art has something to say about the Holocaust. You can read Tolstoy or you can read a Russian history book. Both impart knowledge of Russia at a certain time. Is one more true than the other?" he says with a shrug. "They both have legitimacy. They both are an interpretation of history. And if it increases our awareness of life, it is a worthy endeavor."
THE SON of a diplomat, Martel spent his childhood with his family in a variety of exotic locales, and his upbringing shines through in his writing choices. Exploring territorial and cultural boundaries, there are few subjects he isn't willing to explore. For a non-Jew born in 1967, two decades after the Holocaust, one might question his choice of material. But Martel is not discouraged by potential naysayers.
"I'm not put off by not being Jewish. Perhaps that's an issue Jews need to deal with. On the contrary, I think we should welcome non-Jews to write about the Holocaust. Non-Jews are the ones who need to be educated about it. It's far scarier if Russians have no idea who Hitler was than if a Jewish youth doesn't."
In addition to the years of research he is dedicating to this project, Martel has also traveled to Poland and Auschwitz - twice. "I went in 2002 over New Year's Eve," he recalls. "It was so cold. Even by Canadian standards. I spent five days that year wandering around the grounds."
And why focus on the Holocaust to explore metaphors on genocide?
"Because the Holocaust is unique in its magnitude and quality," he explains. "Even in the Armenian genocide, the Turks were only concerned with wiping out Armenians in a certain part of the world. There is a qualitative difference. Nazis were waging a war of racial hygiene."
In choosing a monkey and donkey to tell his imaginative Holocaust fable, Martel uses animals, again "because of the attributes we assign them." As he explains, people tend to characterize monkeys as clever and donkeys as hard-working or stubborn - qualities he says are often attributed to Jews. "These two animals will act as metaphors for the Jewish people, and a banal shirt as a metaphor of the country they journey through."
It sounds rather complicated, and Martel admits that bringing these metaphors to fruition won't be easy. "A couple divorcing can act as a metaphor for war, but the Holocaust defies metaphors in so many ways," he says. "It doesn't mutate into a happy story. There are so many settings. So many aspects, and an infinite number of anecdotes. There are six million individual stories buried with those who were killed. And each survior has a story as well. So I suppose there are 11 million or more stories out there. It's just daunting."
While Martel turns to animals again to tell his story, in some ways this literary endeavor couldn't seem further from Life of Pi. But in essence it tackles some of the same core elements, and religion is at the heart of it.
Raised in a secular home to agnostic parents, Martel admits to being drawn to religion due to its very absence in his upbringing. "I am religious now," he says, "but not very denominational." In many ways, Martel seems not unlike Pi, a dabbler in all faiths. "Religion is humanity's attempt to understand something that is fundamentally incomprehensible... and there are many ways to fill our stomach."
While the Holocaust is clearly the major theme of the new book, the issue of religion is constantly reintroduced in discussion. It is no coincidence, after all, that the ship Pi survived was called the Tzimtzum, a Kabbalistic term that indicates the contraction or removal of God's infinite light in order to allow for the creation of independent realities (i.e. the free will of man). It is in this Godless void that religion and faith are tested, according to Martel, and Pi must construct something out of the devastation of his life. For many, the Holocaust represents that same moment in the Godless void. In exploring tragedy once again, Martel returns to this Godless space. "People like to entertain tragedy," he observes, "to explore our own emotions. There's a sort of roguish pleasure to it."
Ultimately, Martel says, his book will be a dialectical novel about words, language and story. "How will we speak of these events in years to come? What words can we use to describe what is, in essence, unspeakable?"
By Martel's own admission, his endeavor may not succeed.
"I still consider myself an apprentice when it comes to writing," he says humbly, recalling a time when the distance from his scribblings to the bookshelf seemed unbridgeable. "Success isn't ever guaranteed, and obviously one cannot encompass the events of the Holocaust in one book, or even come close. But if in failing I point the way toward telling the story, then I think the effort will have been worth it."