It's been a little more than two years since Yann Martel, winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize for fiction, started to send books of his own choosing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office on Parliament Hill. He continues to do so -- every two weeks, in fact, the latest contribution, Marguerite Duras's screenplay for Alain Resnais's famous 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour and a DVD of same, going out just this week.
To date Martel has sent 57 packages to Harper -- prompted, you may recall, by a visit he made as part of a delegation to the House of Commons in March 2007 marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Canada Council for the Arts. Harper was in the House that day but he didn't look up at the celebratory delegation nor offer words of congratulation on the council's milestone. "Who is this man?" Martel wondered afterwards. "What makes him tick?" And when he does have quiet time, "moments of stillness," what does he do with them? In short order, Martel decided that every two weeks, on a Monday, for an indefinite time, he would send Harper, at his own expense, a book -- "a book that has been known to expand stillness."
The first offering, dated April 16, 2007, was the Tolstoy novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. About three weeks later he got a reply letter from one of Harper's assistants, thanking him for his "comments and suggestions." The mailing of the books continued and Martel began a website, Whatisstephenharperreading.ca, that included a transcript of his covering explanatory letter to the PM.
After that initial reply, all was silence from the PMO -- until, that is, late April this year. On April 13, Martel, now living in Saskatoon, sent two books, Chester Brown's graphic novel Louis Riel and the Yukio Mishima novel The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. A little over two weeks later, an acknowledgment letter from an S. Russell, "executive correspondence officer" for Harper, landed on Martel's doorstep, expressing "appreciation" for his "thoughtful gesture." Another came shortly thereafter, dated May 1 and again signed by S. Russell, this one thanking Martel for providing William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar while acknowledging Martel's concerns about policy changes to the Canadian Periodical Fund and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that the novelist had addressed in his covering letter. On May 11, Martel sent out his 55th book, Lewis Hyde's The Gift, and darned if on May 22 another "executive correspondence officer," L. A. Lavell, didn't reply -- but without mentioning the book.
After enduring so much silence, Martel admits he's a tad perplexed by the sudden flurry of replies. As he told me in an e-mail last week: "Did the PMO reply because Lous Riel is still pertinent? Did they reply to my gift of 'Caesar' because in that letter I mentioned SSHRC funding and the Canadian Periodical Fund? Are they trying to placate me because the Conservatives are not doing well in the polls? I have no idea."
Meanwhile, Vintage Canada is preparing to put all of Martel's largely one-sided correspondence with the PMO into a $19.95 book called What is Stephen Harper Reading? Yann Martel's Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister (and Book Lovers of All Stripes). A trade paperback, it's scheduled for release in early November this year.
Also upcoming is Martel's long-awaited follow-up to his hugely successful 2001 novel, Life of Pi. Martel tells me he hopes to have it all finished by June 21 -- just four days before his 46th birthday. "It's been a hard book to get right. I've rewritten it completely three times and tinkered with it endlessly at every other stage. All that for quite a short work. It will come out either spring or fall 2010." As he has hinted over the years as he's worked to finish it, the new book is "still about the Holocaust and it still features a monkey and a donkey."