Good Reading : February 2005
16 goodreading concessions for the comfort of his read- ers or the coffers of his publishers.The title of the second story is even more unwieldy: ‘The Time I Heard the Private Donald J Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton’. It is a charac- teristically whimsical story in which the narrator is both moved and bemused by the flawed performance of an orchestra in a semi-demolished theatre. The title story (really a novella) is modelled on Boccaccio’s The Decameron, in which a group of youths in the Middle Ages assemble to tell stories in a desperate bid to stave off the plague. In its 20th-century recasting, Martel examines the platonic relationship between the 19-year-old narrator and his best friend Paul, enduring the final throes of AIDS. As his illness advances, the friends devise a saga following the Roccamatios, a ficti- tious aristocratic family in Helsinki, while taking it in turns to assign a historical episode to each year of the 20th-century which their chronicle spans.The stories of the family are withheld; only the hard facts remain, the passages of history com- menting on the increasingly grim phases of the young man’s disease. ‘Manners of Dying’, a darkly comic parody of bureaucracy’s absurd attempts at compassion, takes the form of a sequence of letters by a prison warden to the mother of the condemned, detailing his final hours before being lead to the gallows. In the book’s final story, ‘The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come’, the left- hand column is filled with a stream of ‘blah-blah-blahblah’ as the bored grand- son is assailed by his grandmother’s nostalgic recollections. The stylistic audacity and dreamlike detachment of these exercises suggests a fresh, bold voice, certain to attract a band of devoted cult followers. But they hardly seem to anticipate the hot-selling pub- lishing phenomenon who, a decade on, would trump the line-up of heavyweights comprising the 2002 Booker short list: Tim Winton, Rohinton Mistry, Carol Shields,William Trevor and Sarah Waters. However, Martel always suspected he had a better chance at winning than most commentators supposed.The turning point in his confidence came when one of the judges was quoted griping about the ponderous and affected nature of the year’s crop. ‘I figured if the jury were looking for something new and different, mine would probably qualify,’ he says. ‘I had a vague hunch that I might actually get this, which was kind of absurd when you think of the short list.’ The eclectism of the collection mirrors the eccentricities of its author. A teetotaling vegetarian who practises sivananda yoga for around an hour each day, Martel is religious but non-denomi- national, and is quick to point out the shared logic of religion and fiction. ‘A good novel, like a good religion, makes you suspend your disbelief,’ says Martel, whose Life of Pi set sail with an old man’s promise: ‘I have a story that will make you believe in God’. Born in Salamanca, Spain to diplomat parents, Martel spent his childhood bouncing between coun- tries, from Costa Rica to France, Spain to Alaska. French is his mother tongue, though he writes in English. His par- ents now work as literary translators, and recently collaborated on the French translation of Life of Pi. Martel wrote the stories of Helsinki shortly after completing his undergradu- ate degree in philosophy. ‘I had always thought that university would be a milieu where I’d be very comfortable,’ he says, describing the minor existential cri- sis that propelled him to start writing. ‘I figured it would easily come to me, and that with a PhD I’d be hugely empow - ered. In second year university, I realised I wasn’t happy there. At 19 my needs went beyond the intellectual. I was losing interest in my courses. I was having dif- ficulty completing essays. I couldn’t even read the stuff I was supposed to read. At one point in the second year I wrote a play. However bad it was, it was thrilling to create something. So I persisted.’ Living off his parents, with no costs for housing or food, Martel soldiered on with his writing. Slowly he improved. Unconcerned about his economic future, he carried out brief spells in menial jobs − as a tree-planter, a security guard and a dishwasher – that didn’t threaten to disrupt his writing. His father, Emile Martel, the recipient of a [Canadian] Governor-General’s Award for Poetry, never pressured Martel to conceive of his life in careerist terms. So, not surprisingly, he had a hard time coping with the Booker windfall. ‘I’ve invested a part in a fair trade chocolate company. Mostly it’s just sitting in the bank. I’ve given a few ethical guidelines to the banker.The only thing I splurged on was a few CDs, a pair of black shoes and a blazer. I figured I occasionally had to look a bit more elegant than the way I used to dress. Otherwise I’ve brought nothing,’ he says. He traces his monkish lifestyle to an episode in his teenage years when the bird-of-passage came to a temporary place of rest. Moving to boarding school in Canada to complete his secondary schooling, Martel found himself holed up in a room with the resident psycho- path ‘who unfortunately was also very smart’.The roommate proceeded to destroy Martel’s few possessions – a UN flag, some books, and his grandmother’s author profile A teetotaling vegetarian who practises sivananda yoga for around an hour each day, Martel is religious but non-denominational, and is quick to point out the shared logic of religion and fiction.
December January 2005