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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Ask Booker Prize winner Yann Martel
Booker Prize winner, Yann Martel

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  • Click here to read the transcript


    Yann Martel's surreal fable Life of Pi has won the prestigious Booker Prize.

    Martel was the bookmakers' favourite for his tale of a 16-year-old boy shipwrecked and stuck in a lifeboat with a tiger called Richard Parker.

    The winner of the 50,000 prize was announced at a ceremony at the British Museum in London on Tuesday night.

    Martell, who is from Canada, can now expect sales of his novel to soar.

    How important is the Booker Prize? What do you think of Yann Martel's book?

    You put your questions to Booker Prize winner Yann Martel in an LIVE interactive forum


    Transcript


    Newshost:

    This year's Booker Prize has been won by the Canadian novelist, Yann Martel. The award, worth 50,000 was announced last night at a ceremony at the British Museum in London.

    Yann Martel's winning novel, Life of Pi, tells the story of a boy adrift in a lifeboat with only a tiger for company. It's been described as eccentric and entrancing.

    Yann Martel has barely had time, I suspect, to pause for breath between now and last night when he won the prize but he's joining us now to answer some of your questions. Thank you very much for joining us and congratulations first of all.


    Yann Martel:

    Thank you very much.


    Newshost:

    Previous Booker winners have described the business of wining and the aftermath as really rather unreal. It's about 16 hours on now, how do you feel?


    Yann Martel:

    I feel like a beach in Normandy on D Day.


    Newshost:

    That bad? How many interviews have you done?


    Yann Martel:

    A fair number. But I'm not complaining, it's a pretty isolating profession so finally to get a bit of attention of very gratifying.


    Newshost:

    A colleague who interviewed you last night said you were a dab hand at summarising the plot of your novel in a very brief space of time for those who haven't read it. Can I just ask you to start things off to do that for us now?


    Yann Martel:

    The novel is about an Indian family that runs a zoo in India. They decide to emigrate to Canada in the mid-70's because of the political situation in India. They close down their zoo, sell their animals to zoos in the United States and since they're all going to the New World, they decide to travel on the same ship.

    Alas the ship sinks and there are only five survivors: Pi Patel, a tiger, an orang-utan, a zebra and a hyena and they all end up on the same lifeboat and quickly it's just the tiger. So most of the novel is about the relationship between Pi Patel and the tiger as they drift across the Pacific for 227 days.


    Newshost:

    Tracey Maclennan, London: Congratulations on your win. Why do you think Canada produced such a relatively high proportion of Booker nominees? Is it luck? Or is it something to do with the physical environment?


    Yann Martel:

    I think it is a mix of the two. It's not just the physical environment. I think Canada is very open to other voices. As I said last night in one interview, the world is in Canada. It's a country with two official languages but no official culture. So people from all over the world are welcome to come and tell their own stories. So that I think that accounts for the variety and I guess the quality of fiction coming out of Canada in recent years.


    Newshost:

    In that sense it sounds rather like America which is a great melting pot. But in America they produced a kind of commercial culture that appeals to all sorts of races and cultures. In Canada you seem to be rather good at highbrow novels.


    Yann Martel:

    I guess so, but it's also that in Canada, government supports the art. We have a very good art support programme coming from the government, not only at the federal level but also at the provincial level - that makes a big difference.


    Newshost:

    Now you've won this prize, which certainly in Britain attracts an enormous amount of brouhaha and interest and some people have suggested that it's really rather too commercial. Dan of England is one of a number of people who has e-mailed us. Do you think from your perspective, that this is more about commerce than it actually is about the quality of the books?


    Yann Martel:

    I think it's stratospherically highbrow to think that art has nothing to do with commerce. For books to meet its readers there necessarily has to be a commercial intermediary. There's nothing vulgar about that. I don't see the point of writing books that are not read. So if a prize brings attention to a book - power to it.

    Now there's an inherent unfairness to prizes of course. There are many good novels. As I said last night, I don't consider my novel to be the best novel but certainly it was the luckiest. So there is an inherent unfairness to literary prizes. Right now I've profited from it, other times I won't. I think it comes with the territory. I don't see what we gain by eliminating all literary prizes.


    Newshost:

    Robin Skelding, London, UK: How significant do you think it is personally to share a book with "the readers", compared with the personal joy you gain from writing it?


    Yann Martel:

    That's a good question. Well both are important. I would write anyway. When I started writing I didn't ever imagine that I would have readers. But once I met readers they are now essential.

    I think a book really comes alive only once it has met a reader. A book in that sense otherwise is 50% - the other 50% is what the reader brings to it - their imagination. So I delight actually in meeting readers, whether it's after readings when there are questions and answers or through letters that I get from readers. I think there's something inherently social to art.


    Newshost:

    John Higgs, Watford, UK: I was very surprised to hear you say that there is nothing allegorical about the book. Were you just somewhat overcome by the award and the occasion? Can explain this to me?


    Yann Martel:

    Because I think in this novel there are two stories. An allegory implies that something is referring to something else. Now you can take it as an allegory but that's a choice that the reader makes.

    My view of it is that there are two stories and the reader has to decide which to believe. So I suppose the one that you believe is the true story and the other can be interpreted as allegory. But since neither one is necessarily true or necessarily false, both can be true. So I don't think of it as an allegory nor do I think of it as a fable. I think of it as two stories and you have to choose.


    Newshost:

    It's also described by some critics as a book about faith and about religion. Daniel Davis of London asks: After reading so much about religion including some of the founding texts of the great religions like the Bible and the Koran. Are you struck more by their similarities or their differences?


    Yann Martel:

    Oh no, they are very, very different. People describe my main character, Pi, as being syncretic in his approach. No he practises each one in a very distinctive way. Each religion is very, very different. To say they'd be the same would be like saying that Indian cuisine is the same as French cuisine and Italian is the same as English. They are very distinct.

    I use the analogy of food. Any cuisine will feed a man - well any religion will feed a spirit but in very different ways. You cannot say that Buddhism with its very diffuse idea of a god - is practically theistic in fact - is anything similar to Islam or Christianity where God is very personalised. So they're very different but I think in different ways they reach down the same deep space.


    Newshost:

    Given that they're different. There a follow up question, also from Daniel Davis: Do you think that there is any currency in contemporary fears about the world fracturing along religious lines?


    Yann Martel:

    The world is fracturing along religious lines however that isn't what I might call true religion so much as fanaticised constructs of religion. Fundamentalism has very little to do with faith. So what Osama bin Laden did in the name of Islam has nothing to do with Islam and reflects more on him than on Islam.

    Any religion can be kidnapped and warped to any sick purpose and we tend to think that Islam specialises in that. We forget American Christian fundamentalist who go out and kill doctors who perform abortions.


    Newshost:

    In one interview I read you drew a distinction between religious belief and faith. Now how useful is that difference and why do you do that?


    Yann Martel:

    To me it's essential. To me a belief is something you cling to and faith is a letting go. Not only in religious terms - when you love someone, you let go, you trust them. When you love a system or anything, you let go - that's faith. When you have a belief you cling. So fundamentalists cling to certain facts. So for example, Christian fundamentalists cling to heterosexual identify - Muslims to a non-Jewish one, a non-western one. Those are beliefs, I don't think they reflect true faith.


    Newshost:

    You described the book as a fable a couple of minutes ago, Michael Golding of London asks: Is there any sense in which Life of Pi is a children's book?


    Yann Martel:

    I suppose it can be taken that way. Parts of it have a brutality that I wouldn't think children would particularly like. There is a certain playfulness to it. I think Pi is quite an engaging character so there is maybe something childlike about him. And the adventure story, I think, would probably appeal to children although I'm not sure children would quite get the deeper elements of the story.


    Newshost:

    Mia Oakley, London: Do you feel that the cult of celebrity, which is now commonplace in the literary world, detracts prospective readers from selecting books by lesser known authors?


    Yann Martel:

    I think that's true. That is the good thing about a prize, it will attract people to a book. Now if it attracts them for the wrong reasons - for reasons of celebrity - well that's not a very good reason but if the end result is that they read the book, well then that's good. It's somewhat perverse. I don't really know what I could do about it.

    Even if I turned down, for some bizarre reason, the Booker Prize, the end result would be the same. In fact my notoriety would be even greater I suppose if I'd turned down the Booker Prize. It's very hard to escape the celebrity culture.


    Newshost:

    Liam Pennington, Preston, UK: Do you think that your victory is going to alter the way you write in future or possibly what you write?


    Yann Martel:

    I hope not. Ask me that in a year's time. I certainly hope not. I hope in a few days, in a few weeks, to close the door on all this noise and get back to the quiet activity of writing and constructing sentences and stories.


    Newshost:

    Your next book, I think, is about the Holocaust, is that right?


    Yann Martel:

    When I was describing to people what Pi was about they'd roll their eyes, finding it incredibly implausible. I think people's reaction will be the same about my next one - this time it will be an allegory - it's an allegory of the Holocaust featuring a monkey and a donkey who travel a huge landscape with soil, trees and rivers and all that but which is also a shirt and it will also be quite light.

    I think one of the problems of the Holocaust is that it's so heavy that it sinks into oblivion and we have difficulty remembering it and especially applying lessons from it. So as bizarre as it sounds, it will be about the Holocaust but the tone will be quite light.


    Newshost:

    Yann Martel, we look forward to that. For now thank you very much for answering our questions. Our congratulations once again on winning the Booker Prize.

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


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