An evening with Yann Martel

We’ve been having an unseasonal bout of snow lately (heavy even by Ottawa standards), and I’ve been contemplating the prospect of 4 months more of the same with something approaching desperation; a slave to the radiator till spring! Friday night, however, saw me slipping along the icy streets towards St. Brigid’s Church, where Yann Martel was giving a talk. Here’s a picture:

(This picture was taken by John W Macdonald. More pictures at

At this stage I make the shallow and irrelevant observation that Martel looks more yuppie-ish than I’d imagined.

Martel spoke about the new illustrated edition of Life of Pi. Now I’ve never been keen on illustrations in a novel outside of children’s literature–all too often, they interrupt the flow of the story, and break the spell cast by the plot. But the illustrations in this book made me reconsider my stance, for they are illustrations in every sense of the word–going well beyond translating words into pictures to illuminating ideas. Objects hazily imagined become beautifully clear–we can see what Pi’s raft looked like, for instance, or where Richard Parker sat on the raft. The pictures themselves are gorgeous, with jewel-bright colors and astonishingly clever perspectives; all the scenes are depicted as though viewed through the eyes of Pi–a trick that pulls the viewer right into the picture.

Martel also spoke about the organic relationship between writer and illustrator, in this case an artist named Tomislav Torjanac, who, despite being located in a  small Croatian village, not only succeeded in getting his work chosen by Martel, but also managed to locate pictures of South Indian food for his paintings, all thanks to the internet. Fascinating.

The second half of the talk dealt with Martel’s attempt to inveigle Canada’s prime minister into reading. (I’ve blogged about this in an earlier post.) Martel’s chosen a wide variety of books–Maus, Oranges are not the only Fruit, the Bhagavad Gita—and hopefully, one of these will pique Harper’s interest.

The talk, however, faltered a bit for me when Martel began to link the importance of reading with the state of the Western World. He set up the West against the East, labelling the West as deeply unhappy inspite of its material wealth, and the East… you get the idea. Anyone who has seen anything of poverty knows this to be a gross oversimplification, and a dangerous romanticization of what is a very wretched condition.  But there’s no denying the passion and piquancy of Martel’s idea, and I hope he succeeds in getting Harper to put aside the Guinness Book of World Records (reputedly his favorite book) for a pint and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.


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