I am not an autobiographical writer," Yann Martel declares flatly at the very top of the interview.
Earnest and bespectacled in blue jeans and a pullover with faux elbow patches - acquired for the occasion at Winners in Saskatoon by his wife, Alice Kuipers - Martel is the liveliest creature stirring in his Toronto publisher's offices this early on a Monday morning. A job that many writers resent and shrink from - describing their work again and again and again - is catnip to him.
Martel, 46, quit writing for two years in order to promote his hugely bestselling 2001 novel, Life of Pi. That excellent promotional adventure is beginning anew, and he is clearly up for it.
Join author Yann Martel online, Tuesday April 13 at 11 a.m.
So he begins by addressing a misconception that became widespread even before his latest, long-awaited novel came out. "In Life of Pi, the only autobiographical detail was that Pi's favourite colour was green," he says, suggesting if not insisting that Beatrice and Virgil is no more about him than that. Such is Fact No. 1 about the new book.
But is it true? Comparing Yann with Henry, the author-narrator of Beatrice and Virgil, it is only a few, non-autobiographical details that stand out. Otherwise they appear to be twins.
Henry, like Yann, is a writer who achieved great success with a novel that featured talking animals. Like Yann, he subsequently had cards printed allowing him to reply in person to each and every fan letter his animal novel inspired. Both have a new baby boy named Theo.
And both are supremely serious men with a didactic bent and restless souls, calling no place home. Born in Spain and raised in France, Costa Rica and Mexico, Martel is the son of Canadian diplomats Émile and Nicole Martel. (His father, who won the Governor-General's Award for French poetry in 1994, is president of PEN Quebec.) As an adult, Martel has made his home in as many countries again. He and Alice only pretend to live in Saskatoon, says a friend: "They're eternal backpackers."
Although he received a conventional Canadian education at Trinity College School in Ontario and later at Trent University, Martel is more of a Henry-like, rootless cosmopolite than a typical Prairie novelist nailed to the earth.
More to the point, both Yann and Henry struggled mightily with their ambitious, grave and identical post-bestseller project: a novel about the Holocaust, rendered non-literally, even non-fictionally. To the extent it follows any linear storyline, Beatrice and Virgil is the frank diary of a middle-aged novelist facing world-class writer's block.
Some might consider it an instance of overearnestness: Martel says he spent "years to figure out if it could be done and how I could do it." He read deeply and travelled widely while his publishers grew restless. He was stuck in a moral quandary only he could see - and which ultimately became, through the medium of Henry, a central subject of his book.
But not before he, again like Henry, proposed to his publishers to create a "flip book" with two front covers, one introducing an essay on the difficulty of dramatizing the Holocaust, and the obverse fronting a story attempting to do so. Both spent years writing the essay component. And all their publishers and editors, real and otherwise, put their many feet down and said no.
But here we must allow the real author to intercede. "I did have lunch with my editors, and they convinced me not to publish a flip book," he says, "but not for the reasons stated in the book."
The reasons stated in the book are rude and cutting, led by a professional historian who persistently wonders what, exactly, Henry thinks he is writing about. In fact, says Martel, there were no such insults and he accepted the editorial argument that an essay would "box in" the fiction.
"I said, 'You're right, you want to read a novel as freely as possible,' " he says now, going even further than his editors - and belying the combative image that emerged from real-life accounts of the meeting. "In fact, I don't want to say this is a novel on the Holocaust; it's up to readers to interpret."
Once again, Martel has chosen to stimulate that response by putting much of the action and dialogue of his new book in the minds and mouths of animals - in this case a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. They first appear in the limbo of a barren stage, talking about fruit.
"I like using animals because they help suspend my reader's disbelief," Martel says, echoing a point about "rhinoceros dentists" that Henry makes in the novel. "We have certain ideas about dentists. We don't have many ideas about rhinoceros dentists," the author explains. "Especially if it's a wild animal, I find the readers are intrigued. And if your reader's intrigued right away, you've won half the battle of telling a story."
Martel is so wedded to the technique that he is currently writing a novel featuring three chimpanzees who dramatize the challenges of mentorship. "I'm really excited about it," he says.
But the main reason he went with animals this time is that they helped him escape a "literal approach to the Holocaust." Says Martel, "I thought, if I can't approach it in human disguise, I can approach it in animal disguise. That worked for me."
And if some readers interpret Beatrice and Virgil as a fable about animal extinction, so be it.
Except that they would be wrong: As the author-narrator of the novel makes clear with his own story, Beatrice and Virgil is essentially one long struggle to describe the indescribable.
"There's something incredibly story-defeating about the Holocaust," Martel acknowledges, channelling Henry's anxiety. There are an infinite number of war stories possible, he adds, but there seems to be only one Holocaust story - "the standard narrative of a so-so life, a train ride, and hell." There are no survivors, no variations.
"In genocide, character does not matter," Martel continues, emphasizing the biggest challenge it presents to the conscientious artist. "The Holocaust was an incredibly tragic event, but also completely impersonal. How do you tell a story about that?"
The author's unconventional solution - using a stand-in writer struggling with the same problem, animals in absurdist dialogues, and a taxidermist villain - belies the straightforward research that went into the novel. That included a visit to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel and three separate visits to the killing fields of Auschwitz.
What Martel discovered at Auschwitz, with characteristic originality, was nothing. "If you spend a lot of time there, you realize it's just barracks," he says. "There's actually nothing there. … There's no evil in the place, there's only the evil you bring there."
Watching busloads of tourists come and go - everybody having a "big cry" and then rolling off to admire medieval Krakow - only persuaded Martel of the need for distance to make his point. "It is a highly charged event," he says. "Nonetheless, it strikes me that to get the lessons of the Holocaust, you have to get beyond those emotions and think your way through."
That's something people don't do often enough, Martel adds, which is why he wrote Beatrice and Virgil. "You think Holocaust, you think Auschwitz, where the whole evil is being compressed," he says. "You don't tend to think about what happened before - all the little strands that led to it."
Readers will be challenged to winnow those strands out of the novel, a deliberately fragmented pastiche that references historical events obliquely at best. It is about the Holocaust only because, the author admits, he couldn't find a suitably complete "escape" from the facts at hand.
Thus the book's climax leaves little doubt about the till-then murky roles of the animals and the taxidermist. They ultimately become actors in a literal genocide. "I could not escape that," Martel says apologetically. "It was my limitation."
He just couldn't bring himself to write a self-contained, easily interpreted "suitcase" of a political allegory like George Orwell's Animal Farm. "I didn't want to be quite so emotionally direct," he says. "I threw everything I could at it to try to write about the Holocaust without being literal." Including himself, in the guise of the rootless Henry.
Unlike Henry, Martel himself has put down roots of a sort since the extraordinary success of his breakthrough novel. Inspired by a French-Canadian aunt and uncle who moved to Saskatoon in the mid-sixties after a medical education in the United States, determined to practise socialized medicine, Martel and his British-born wife followed suit 30 years later, inspired in part by the same commitment to progressive politics. Eight months ago, Martel's uncle, Dr. Serge Martel, helped deliver Theo.
"The quality of life in Saskatoon is the highest I've seen anywhere," he raves. The light is "extraordinarily beautiful" and the landscape "subtle," blissfully free of view-blocking mountains. And it's a dry cold.
But as with so much else about the life of this chameleon character, the truth is changeable. Home is no simple concept to this author, nor a place he is spending much time in these days. "I've only two days in Saskatoon the next two months," he says, describing what he considers to be a bizarre request from British journalists to interview him in Saskatchewan. "They're coming to meet me here just to say they interviewed me at home!"
Clearly he would prefer to write his own story - leaving himself out of the picture. Sort of.