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Wednesday, 23 October, 2002, 01:11 GMT 02:11 UK
Martel's quirky path
Yann Martel
Martel wants to take on big themes
Yann Martel was raised in a strongly anti-clerical family, but religion and philosophy play a major part in his Booker-winning novel.

Life of Pi has been described as a classic fable, with animals of greatly differing characters brought in to play out a discussion of the meaning of life and how we understand the world around us.

Researching it, Martel read religious texts like the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita as well as studying animal and child psychology.

His minutely detailed description of life on a small boat adrift in the Pacific was informed by the reading and re-reading of shipwreck stories and accounts.

Yann Martel
Martel previously only had modest sales
Martel said he had wanted to go against the maxim that writers should only tackle subjects they already know about.

"I tried to learn about this world. Animals, religion, spirituality. To some extent we can all connect with that. It was a very easy book to write."

The 39-year-old Canadian has had a life of travelling to provide the backdrop for his exotic fantasy.

Born in Spain after his parents left the oppressive "Great Darkness" era in 1960s Quebec, his cosmopolitan upbringing as the child of a diplomat meant a youth spent in Costa Rica, France, Mexico, Alaska and Canada, and stints as an adult in Iran, Turkey and India.

Martel only came to writing after a spell studying philosophy and doing odd jobs.

He had worked planting trees, washing dishes and as a security guard, but supported himself with his writing from the age of 27.

His works lean towards the unusual and the oblique, with a collection of short stories entitled The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, and a novel featuring a male central character who wakes up as a woman one day.

Neither sold well, but could not stop Martel ploughing a left-field furrow, with the author's next book reported to be about animals crossing a bizarre vista that turns out the be the shirt of a Jew during the Holocaust.

Ambitious art

In his essay How I Wrote Life of Pi, Martel insisted the bizarre setting for the Booker winner came from a review of another novel, Max and the Cats, by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar.

The work describes the journey of a Jewish family to Brazil in 1933 as their ship sinks, leaving one family-member alone with a panther.

Although modest, Martel gives no indication of having taken on too much in the writing of Life of Pi, insisting: "Art should be ambitious."

He admits that the writing process is difficult and lengthy for him.

"It took four years to write this book. It took everything I have."

Coverage of the 2002 Booker Prize from BBC News Online and BBCi Arts


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