Yann Martel, CC, novelist, short-story writer (born 25 June 1963 in Salamanca, Spain). A francophone who writes in English, Yann Martel is best known for the international bestseller Life of Pi (2001). It won the prestigious Man Booker Prize and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name. Martel has also won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and a Coventry Inspiration Book Award. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2021.
Education and Early Career
The son of French Canadian parents, Yann Martel spent his early years living with his mother and father — a teacher turned diplomat. They resided in various parts of Western Canada and the United States, Central America and Europe. After completing his high school education in Port Hope, Ontario, Martel began studying philosophy at Trent University in 1981. Upon graduation, he worked a variety of odd jobs and spent years travelling abroad. He decided to devote himself to his writing at the age of 27.
Martel published his first book, a short-story collection entitled The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, in 1993. Winner of the 1991 Journey Prize, the title story in this collection champions the power of imagination in the lives of two young friends facing the painful reality of HIV/AIDS. More generally, this poignant collection deals with the interconnected themes of death, memory and the nature of storytelling. Martel's debut novel, Self (1996), is a fictional autobiography that tackles issues of identity, gender and transformation in a world governed by various social and cultural boundaries.
Life of Pi (2001)
With the resounding success of his third book, Life of Pi (2001), Martel became an internationally recognized author. The 2002 winner of Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize, this bestselling novel was also nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and a Governor General's Literary Award (among others). It was featured on CBC’s Canada Reads series in 2003.
Life of Pi chronicles the remarkable journey of Pi Patel, an Indian teenager who is stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a large Bengali tiger named Richard Parker. In his creation of such an unlikely tale, Martel encourages his readers to suspend their disbelief to better appreciate the mind’s uncanny ability to deal with the most extraordinary of circumstances.
Life of Pi has been published as an illustrated edition (2007, illustrated by Tomislav Torjanac); adapted as a play (2003); and adapted for film (2012). The film starred Suraj Sharma as Pi and was directed by Ang Lee, who received an Academy Award for Life of Pi in 2013 for Best Director. Some controversy ensued after critics noted resonances between the novel and Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's work Max and the Cats (1981).
Martel has continued to publish works that muse on memory, horror and the consequences of human error and evil. The title story of his 2004 collection, We Ate the Children Last: Stories, is a cautionary speculative work about experimental medical treatment and human consumption. It was was adapted into a short film directed by Andrew Cividino (2011).
Martel's third novel, Beatrice and Virgil, was published in 2010. Two of the central characters, for whom the book is named, are a stuffed donkey and monkey, evidence of Martel's continued use of animals to explore the human condition. A meditation on truth and imagination, as well as the Holocaust and the way that horrific event has been represented by writers, the novel is complex. It uses metafictional techniques and bending of the boundaries of non-fiction, fiction, drama and autofiction. In 2014, Beatrice and Virgil was adapted as a play by Lindsay Cochrane and premiered at Toronto’s Factory Theatre.
“What is Stephen Harper Reading?”
In 2007, Martel began the project “What is Stephen Harper Reading?” — a one-sided correspondence with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Every two weeks, Martel sent the prime minister a work of literature, accompanied by a letter engaging with the work. The first 55 letters were collected into a book in 2009, What is Stephen Harper Reading? Yann Martel's Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister (and Book Lovers of All Stripes). Martel ended the project in 2011, after sending Harper 101 books. All 101 letters were published in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister: The Complete Letters to Stephen Harper (2012).
The High Mountains of Portugal (2016)
In 2016, Martel published his fourth novel, The High Mountains of Portugal. It is comprised of three linked narratives that revolve around themes of grief and faith. The opening narrative is set in the early 20th century and follows Tomas, assistant curator at The National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, on a quixotic journey in search of an iconoclastic crucifix from the 17th century. Tomas has recently suffered the deaths of his son, lover, and father. In a bazaar act of spiritual rebellion, Tomas has vowed to only walk backwards, “his back to the world, his back to God.”
The second section of the novel takes place in 1938, in the village of Tuizelo, where Tomas eventually stumbled upon the rare crucifix he was looking for. It is the story of a surreal and profound autopsy performed by an Agatha Christie-loving pathologist from the region, Dr. Lozora. The final section tells the story of recently widowed Canadian Senator, Peter Tovy, who moves to Northern Portugal with a chimpanzee adopted from the Institute of Primate Research in Oklahoma.
Following the publication and success of Life of Pi, Martel accepted a teaching position with the Department of Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin (2002–03). He was also the Writer in Residence at the Saskatoon Public Library in 2003–04.
Martel lives in Saskatoon with his wife, British-born author Alice Kuipers. They have one daughter and three sons.
Awards and Honours
- Journey Prize (1991)
- Man Booker Prize (2001)
- Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction (2001)
- Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (2001)
- The Boeke Prize (2003)
- La Presse du Grand Public (2003)
- Deutscher Bücherpreis (2004)
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
- Coventry Inspiration Book Awards (2014)
- Companion, Order of Canada (2021)