Yann Martel: Imaginative Atrophy and Lonely Book Clubs

litbonanza.jpg(Reprinted from Shifting Baselines)

Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, spoke on campus last night and I was smart enough to attend. I cannot possibly impart all of his wisdom here so I’ll give you what I found to be the most interesting snippets. My own wisdom: if you haven’t read Life of Pi, please do. To be courteous to those who have not, I’ll begin with Martel’s politics and end with his writing.


On His Lonely Book Club with Stephen Harper:
About 8 months ago, Martel attended an event for the Canada Council for the Arts in Ottawa, where he said the politicians were largely absent and the artists were waved through the event “like schoolchildren.” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was nowhere to be seen. Harper has cut funding for literary groups and seems to value hockey more than art. In an effort to get Harper to understand the importance of books, Yann Martel now has a Lonely Book Club, in which he sends Harper a book every couple of weeks. Aside from a three-sentence thank you letter after the first book, Harper has not responded. Martel imagines Harper has been so silent “because he hasn’t read a work of art since he was an adolescent.”

On Politics and the Arts:
Martel believes many politicians (and other rationalists, a class of people he finds hard to meet) are suffering from “imaginative atrophy.” We need imagination and literature because it opens our hearts. “We are led by technocrats who reduced our nations to their economic workings.” But culture and language are equally as important. He points out that Calgary in the boom province of Alberta is economically healthy but culturally impoverished. Martel is deadpan on the subject. “If we’re allowed to ask questions about how much money they make and what their moral positions are, why can’t we ask politicians about their imaginations?”

On Atheism:
“This has been the great year of atheists. Scientists have been very impressive with their reasoning.” Martel went on to talk about the brilliance of good arguments, such as those presented by “Ronald” Dawkins (maybe Martel sees a merging of icons: Ronald McDawkins?!). “But where does that leave you at the end of the day when you’re alone with your mortality?” Religion is self-reinforcing because it deals with faith and imagination.

On the New Illustrated Edition of Life of Pi:
From 1600 illustrators who originally submitted to the competition to illustrate the book, narrowed down to a long list of 60, to a short list of six, Tomislav Torjanac was chosen. Martel took us through Tomislav’s illustrations, which are magical (see above and more here).

On the Island:
An audience member invariably asked about the island in Life of Pi and, though Martel was reluctant explain himself, he eventually said, “If you’re going to believe the story with the animals, I wanted you to stop being so reasonable. The island floats just beyond what you can reasonably believe.”

On a Cinematic Version of the Book:
That’s right, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the fabulous director of Amelie, will be directing the movie version of Life of Pi. Martel loves film but cautions that “cinema kidnaps you” in terms of imagination.

On His Newest Work:
A 20th Century Shirt is the title of his newest book, which is actually an essay and a novel in one and will be presented as a flipbook, which is not a gimmick but because they are “genres that are not compatible.” Both are about the Holocaust. “The novel is about a red howler monkey and a donkey that live on a big shirt, which is actually a country. Does that sound interesting?”

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Jennifer Jacquet is a Ph.D. candidate with the Sea Around Us Project at the UBC Fisheries Centre. She works closely with Dr. Daniel Pauly, who in 1995 coined the term "Shifting Baselines", the syndrome on which her blog borrows its name.