About the Author

Yann Martel

Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi, the global bestseller that won the 2002 Man Booker Prize (among other honours) and was adapted to the screen in the Oscar-winning film by Ang Lee. He is also the author of the short story collection The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, the novels Self and Beatrice and Virgil, and the nonfiction work 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Born in Spain in 1963, Martel studied philosophy at Trent University, worked at odd jobs — tree planter, dishwasher, security guard — and travelled widely before turning to writing. He lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with the writer Alice Kuipers and their four children.

Books by this Author
101 Letters to a Prime Minister

101 Letters to a Prime Minister

The Complete Letters to Stephen Harper
edition:Paperback
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Beatrice & Virgil

Beatrice & Virgil

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info
Excerpt

(Virgil and Beatrice are sitting at the foot of the tree.
They are looking out blankly.
Silence.)
 
VIRGIL: What I’d give for a pear.
 
BEATRICE: A pear?
 
VIRGIL: Yes. A ripe and juicy one.
 
(Pause.)
 
BEATRICE: I’ve never had a pear.
 
VIRGIL: What?
 
BEATRICE: In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever set eyes on one.
 
VIRGIL: How is that possible? It’s a common fruit.
 
BEATRICE: My parents were always eating apples and carrots. I
guess they didn’t like pears.
 
VIRGIL: But pears are so good! I bet you there’s a pear tree
right around here. (He looks about.)
 

 
 
BEATRICE: What does a pear taste like?
 
VIRGIL: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes a
fragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lying
in the lightness of its impression upon the olfactory
sense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or
cinnamon?
 
BEATRICE: I can.
 
VIRGIL: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on the
mind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested,
spellbound, and a thousand and one memories and
associations are thrown up as the mind burrows deep
to understand the allure of this beguiling smell—
which it never comes to understand, by the way.
 
BEATRICE: But how does it taste? I can’t wait any longer.
 
VIRGIL: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.
 
BEATRICE: Oh, that sounds good.
 
VIRGIL: Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is
incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those
who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the
dark.
 
BEATRICE: I must have one.
 
VIRGIL: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet another
difficult matter to put into words. Some pears are a
little crunchy.
 
BEATRICE: Like an apple?
 
VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being
eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The
crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is
giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to . . .
kissing.
 
BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.
 
VIRGIL: The flesh of a pear can be slightly gritty. And yet it
melts in the mouth.
 
BEATRICE: Is such a thing possible?
 
VIRGIL: With every pear. And that is only the look, the feel,
the smell, the texture. I have not even told you of
the taste.
 
BEATRICE: My God!
 
VIRGIL: The taste of a good pear is such that when you eat
one, when your teeth sink into the bliss of one, it
becomes a wholly engrossing activity. You want to
do nothing else but eat your pear. You would rather
sit than stand. You would rather be alone than in
company. You would rather have silence than music.
All your senses but taste fall inactive. You see
nothing, you hear nothing, you feel nothing—or
only as it helps you to appreciate the divine taste of
your pear.
 
BEATRICE: But what does it actually taste like?
 
VIRGIL: A pear tastes like, it tastes like . . . (He struggles. He
gives up with a shrug.) I don’t know. I can’t put it into
words. A pear tastes like itself.
 
BEATRICE: (sadly) I wish you had a pear.
 
VIRGIL: And if I had one, I would give it to you.
 
(Silence.)

close this panel
Excerpt

(Virgil and Beatrice are sitting at the foot of the tree.
They are looking out blankly.
Silence.)
 
VIRGIL: What I’d give for a pear.
 
BEATRICE: A pear?
 
VIRGIL: Yes. A ripe and juicy one.
 
(Pause.)
 
BEATRICE: I’ve never had a pear.
 
VIRGIL: What?
 
BEATRICE: In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever set eyes on one.
 
VIRGIL: How is that possible? It’s a common fruit.
 
BEATRICE: My parents were always eating apples and carrots. I
guess they didn’t like pears.
 
VIRGIL: But pears are so good! I bet you there’s a pear tree
right around here. (He looks about.)
 

 
 
BEATRICE: What does a pear taste like?
 
VIRGIL: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes a
fragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lying
in the lightness of its impression upon the olfactory
sense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or
cinnamon?
 
BEATRICE: I can.
 
VIRGIL: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on the
mind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested,
spellbound, and a thousand and one memories and
associations are thrown up as the mind burrows deep
to understand the allure of this beguiling smell—
which it never comes to understand, by the way.
 
BEATRICE: But how does it taste? I can’t wait any longer.
 
VIRGIL: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.
 
BEATRICE: Oh, that sounds good.
 
VIRGIL: Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is
incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those
who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the
dark.
 
BEATRICE: I must have one.
 
VIRGIL: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet another
difficult matter to put into words. Some pears are a
little crunchy.
 
BEATRICE: Like an apple?
 
VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being
eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The
crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is
giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to . . .
kissing.
 
BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.
 
VIRGIL: The flesh of a pear can be slightly gritty. And yet it
melts in the mouth.
 
BEATRICE: Is such a thing possible?
 
VIRGIL: With every pear. And that is only the look, the feel,
the smell, the texture. I have not even told you of
the taste.
 
BEATRICE: My God!
 
VIRGIL: The taste of a good pear is such that when you eat
one, when your teeth sink into the bliss of one, it
becomes a wholly engrossing activity. You want to
do nothing else but eat your pear. You would rather
sit than stand. You would rather be alone than in
company. You would rather have silence than music.
All your senses but taste fall inactive. You see
nothing, you hear nothing, you feel nothing—or
only as it helps you to appreciate the divine taste of
your pear.
 
BEATRICE: But what does it actually taste like?
 
VIRGIL: A pear tastes like, it tastes like . . . (He struggles. He
gives up with a shrug.) I don’t know. I can’t put it into
words. A pear tastes like itself.
 
BEATRICE: (sadly) I wish you had a pear.
 
VIRGIL: And if I had one, I would give it to you.
 
(Silence.)

close this panel
Beatrice & Virgil (Unabridged) (CD)
Excerpt

(Virgil and Beatrice are sitting at the foot of the tree.
They are looking out blankly.
Silence.)
 
VIRGIL: What I’d give for a pear.
 
BEATRICE: A pear?
 
VIRGIL: Yes. A ripe and juicy one.
 
(Pause.)
 
BEATRICE: I’ve never had a pear.
 
VIRGIL: What?
 
BEATRICE: In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever set eyes on one.
 
VIRGIL: How is that possible? It’s a common fruit.
 
BEATRICE: My parents were always eating apples and carrots. I
guess they didn’t like pears.
 
VIRGIL: But pears are so good! I bet you there’s a pear tree
right around here. (He looks about.)
 
...
 
 
BEATRICE: What does a pear taste like?
 
VIRGIL: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes a
fragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lying
in the lightness of its impression upon the olfactory
sense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or
cinnamon?
 
BEATRICE: I can.
 
VIRGIL: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on the
mind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested,
spellbound, and a thousand and one memories and
associations are thrown up as the mind burrows deep
to understand the allure of this beguiling smell—
which it never comes to understand, by the way.
 
BEATRICE: But how does it taste? I can’t wait any longer.
 
VIRGIL: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.
 
BEATRICE: Oh, that sounds good.
 
VIRGIL: Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is
incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those
who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the
dark.
 
BEATRICE: I must have one.
 
VIRGIL: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet another
difficult matter to put into words. Some pears are a
little crunchy.
 
BEATRICE: Like an apple?
 
VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being
eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The
crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is
giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to . . .
kissing.
 
BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.
 
VIRGIL: The flesh of a pear can be slightly gritty. And yet it
melts in the mouth.
 
BEATRICE: Is such a thing possible?
 
VIRGIL: With every pear. And that is only the look, the feel,
the smell, the texture. I have not even told you of
the taste.
 
BEATRICE: My God!
 
VIRGIL: The taste of a good pear is such that when you eat
one, when your teeth sink into the bliss of one, it
becomes a wholly engrossing activity. You want to
do nothing else but eat your pear. You would rather
sit than stand. You would rather be alone than in
company. You would rather have silence than music.
All your senses but taste fall inactive. You see
nothing, you hear nothing, you feel nothing—or
only as it helps you to appreciate the divine taste of
your pear.
 
BEATRICE: But what does it actually taste like?
 
VIRGIL: A pear tastes like, it tastes like . . . (He struggles. He
gives up with a shrug.) I don’t know. I can’t put it into
words. A pear tastes like itself.
 
BEATRICE: (sadly) I wish you had a pear.
 
VIRGIL: And if I had one, I would give it to you.
 
(Silence.)

From the Hardcover edition.

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Life of Pi

Life of Pi

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary, animals
More Info
Excerpt

Chapter 1

My suffering left me sad and gloomy.

Academic study and the steady, mindful practice of religion slowly brought me back to life. I have remained a faithful Hindu, Christian and Muslim. I decided to stay in Toronto. After one year of high school, I attended the University of Toronto and took a double-major Bachelor’s degree. My majors were religious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed. My zoology thesis was a functional analysis of the thyroid gland of the three-toed sloth. I chose the sloth because its demeanour — calm, quiet and introspective — did something to soothe my shattered self.

There are two-toed sloths and there are three-toed sloths, the case being determined by the forepaws of the animals, since all sloths have three claws on their hind paws. I had the great luck one summer of studying the three-toed sloth in situ in the equatorial jungles of Brazil. It is a highly intriguing creature. Its only real habit is indolence. It sleeps or rests on average twenty hours a day. Our team tested the sleep habits of five wild three-toed sloths by placing on their heads, in the early evening after they had fallen asleep, bright red plastic dishes filled with water. We found them still in place late the next morning, the water of the dishes swarming with insects. The sloth is at its busiest at sunset, using the word busy here in a most relaxed sense. It moves along the bough of a tree in its characteristic upside-down position at the speed of roughly 400 metres an hour. On the ground, it crawls to its next tree at the rate of 250 metres an hour, when motivated, which is 440 times slower than a motivated cheetah. Unmotivated, it covers four to five metres in an hour.

The three-toed sloth is not well informed about the outside world. On a scale of 2 to 10, where 2 represents unusual dullness and 10 extreme acuity, Beebe (1926) gave the sloth’s senses of taste, touch, sight and hearing a rating of 2, and its sense of smell a rating of 3. If you come upon a sleeping three-toed sloth in the wild, two or three nudges should suffice to awaken it; it will then look sleepily in every direction but yours. Why it should look about is uncertain since the sloth sees everything in a Magoo-like blur. As for hearing, the sloth is not so much deaf as uninterested in sound. Beebe reported that firing guns next to sleeping or feeding sloths elicited little reaction. And the sloth’s slightly better sense of smell should not be overestimated. They are said to be able to sniff and avoid decayed branches, but Bullock (1968) reported that sloths fall to the ground clinging to decayed branches “often”.

How does it survive, you might ask.

Precisely by being so slow. Sleepiness and slothfulness keep it out of harm’s way, away from the notice of jaguars, ocelots, harpy eagles and anacondas. A sloth’s hairs shelter an algae that is brown during the dry season and green during the wet season, so the animal blends in with the surrounding moss and foliage and looks like a nest of white ants or of squirrels, or like nothing at all but part of a tree.

The three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment. “A good-natured smile is forever on its lips,” reported Tirler (1966). I have seen that smile with my own eyes. I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, looking up at sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing.

Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students–muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright–reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.

I never had problems with my fellow scientists. Scientists are a friendly, atheistic, hard-working, beer-drinking lot whose minds are preoccupied with sex, chess and baseball when they are not preoccupied with science.

I was a very good student, if I may say so myself. I was tops at St. Michael’s College four years in a row. I got every possible student award from the Department of Zoology. If I got none from the Department of Religious Studies, it is simply because there are no student awards in this department (the rewards of religious study are not in mortal hands, we all know that). I would have received the Governor General’s Academic Medal, the University of Toronto’s highest undergraduate award, of which no small number of illustrious Canadians have been recipients, were it not for a beef-eating pink boy with a neck like a tree trunk and a temperament of unbearable good cheer.

I still smart a little at the slight. When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling. My life is like a memento mori painting from European art: there is always a grinning skull at my side to remind me of the folly of human ambition. I mock this skull. I look at it and I say, “You’ve got the wrong fellow. You may not believe in life, but I don’t believe in death. Move on!” The skull snickers and moves ever closer, but that doesn’t surprise me. The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity–it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud. The pink boy also got the nod from the Rhodes Scholarship committee. I love him and I hope his time at Oxford was a rich experience. If Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, one day favours me bountifully, Oxford is fifth on the list of cities I would like to visit before I pass on, after Mecca, Varanasi, Jerusalem and Paris.

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Life of Pi (illustrated Edition)
Excerpt

Chapter 1

My suffering left me sad and gloomy.

Academic study and the steady, mindful practice of religion slowly brought me back to life. I have remained a faithful Hindu, Christian and Muslim. I decided to stay in Toronto. After one year of high school, I attended the University of Toronto and took a double-major Bachelor’s degree. My majors were religious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed. My zoology thesis was a functional analysis of the thyroid gland of the three-toed sloth. I chose the sloth because its demeanour — calm, quiet and introspective — did something to soothe my shattered self.

There are two-toed sloths and there are three-toed sloths, the case being determined by the forepaws of the animals, since all sloths have three claws on their hind paws. I had the great luck one summer of studying the three-toed sloth in situ in the equatorial jungles of Brazil. It is a highly intriguing creature. Its only real habit is indolence. It sleeps or rests on average twenty hours a day. Our team tested the sleep habits of five wild three-toed sloths by placing on their heads, in the early evening after they had fallen asleep, bright red plastic dishes filled with water. We found them still in place late the next morning, the water of the dishes swarming with insects. The sloth is at its busiest at sunset, using the word busy here in a most relaxed sense. It moves along the bough of a tree in its characteristic upside-down position at the speed of roughly 400 metres an hour. On the ground, it crawls to its next tree at the rate of 250 metres an hour, when motivated, which is 440 times slower than a motivated cheetah. Unmotivated, it covers four to five metres in an hour.

The three-toed sloth is not well informed about the outside world. On a scale of 2 to 10, where 2 represents unusual dullness and 10 extreme acuity, Beebe (1926) gave the sloth’s senses of taste, touch, sight and hearing a rating of 2, and its sense of smell a rating of 3. If you come upon a sleeping three-toed sloth in the wild, two or three nudges should suffice to awaken it; it will then look sleepily in every direction but yours. Why it should look about is uncertain since the sloth sees everything in a Magoo-like blur. As for hearing, the sloth is not so much deaf as uninterested in sound. Beebe reported that firing guns next to sleeping or feeding sloths elicited little reaction. And the sloth’s slightly better sense of smell should not be overestimated. They are said to be able to sniff and avoid decayed branches, but Bullock (1968) reported that sloths fall to the ground clinging to decayed branches “often”.

How does it survive, you might ask.

Precisely by being so slow. Sleepiness and slothfulness keep it out of harm’s way, away from the notice of jaguars, ocelots, harpy eagles and anacondas. A sloth’s hairs shelter an algae that is brown during the dry season and green during the wet season, so the animal blends in with the surrounding moss and foliage and looks like a nest of white ants or of squirrels, or like nothing at all but part of a tree.

The three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment. “A good-natured smile is forever on its lips,” reported Tirler (1966). I have seen that smile with my own eyes. I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, looking up at sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing.

Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students–muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright–reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.

I never had problems with my fellow scientists. Scientists are a friendly, atheistic, hard-working, beer-drinking lot whose minds are preoccupied with sex, chess and baseball when they are not preoccupied with science.

I was a very good student, if I may say so myself. I was tops at St. Michael’s College four years in a row. I got every possible student award from the Department of Zoology. If I got none from the Department of Religious Studies, it is simply because there are no student awards in this department (the rewards of religious study are not in mortal hands, we all know that). I would have received the Governor General’s Academic Medal, the University of Toronto’s highest undergraduate award, of which no small number of illustrious Canadians have been recipients, were it not for a beef-eating pink boy with a neck like a tree trunk and a temperament of unbearable good cheer.

I still smart a little at the slight. When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling. My life is like a memento mori painting from European art: there is always a grinning skull at my side to remind me of the folly of human ambition. I mock this skull. I look at it and I say, “You’ve got the wrong fellow. You may not believe in life, but I don’t believe in death. Move on!” The skull snickers and moves ever closer, but that doesn’t surprise me. The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity–it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud. The pink boy also got the nod from the Rhodes Scholarship committee. I love him and I hope his time at Oxford was a rich experience. If Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, one day favours me bountifully, Oxford is fifth on the list of cities I would like to visit before I pass on, after Mecca, Varanasi, Jerusalem and Paris.

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Self

Self

edition:Paperback
tagged :
More Info
The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
Excerpt

The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

I hadn’t known Paul for very long. We met in the fall of 1986 at Ellis University, in Roetown, just east of Toronto. I had taken time off and worked and travelled to India: I was twenty-three and in my last year. Paul had just turned nineteen and was entering first year. At the beginning of the year at Ellis, some senior students introduce the first-years to the university. There are no pranks or mischief or anything like that; the seniors are there to be helpful. They’re called “amigos” and the first-years “amigees”, which shows you how much Spanish they speak in Roetown. I was an amigo and most of my amigees struck me as cheerful, eager and young — very young. But right away I liked Paul’s laidback, intelligent curiosity and his sceptical turn of mind. The two of us clicked and we started hanging out together. Because I was older and I had done more things, I usually spoke with the authority of a wise guru, and Paul listened like a young disciple — except when he raised an eyebrow and said something that threw my pompousness right into my face. Then we laughed and broke from these roles and it was plain what we were: really good friends.

Then, hardly into second term, Paul fell ill. Already at Christmas he had had a fever, and since then he had been carrying around a dry, hacking cough he couldn’t get rid of. Initially, he — we — thought nothing of it. The cold, the dryness of the air — it was something to do with that.

Slowly things got worse. Now I recall signs that I didn’t think twice about at the time. Meals left unfinished. A complaint once of diarrhea. A lack of energy that went beyond phlegmatic temperament. One day we were climbing the stairs to the library, hardly twenty-five steps, and when we reached the top, we stopped. I remember realizing that the only reason we had stopped was because Paul was out of breath and wanted to rest. And he seemed to be losing weight. It was hard to tell, what with the heavy winter sweaters and all, but I was certain that his frame had been stockier earlier in the year. When it became clear that something was wrong, we talked about it — nearly casually, you must understand — and I played doctor and said, “Let’s see . . . breathlessness, cough, weight loss, fatigue. Paul, you have pneumonia.” I was joking, of course; what do I know? But that’s in fact what he had. It’s called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, PCP to intimates. In mid-February Paul went to Toronto to see his family doctor.

Nine months later he was dead.

AIDS. He announced it to me over the phone in a detached voice. He had been gone nearly two weeks. He had just got back from the hospital, he told me. I reeled. My first thoughts were for myself. Had he ever cut himself in my presence? If so, what had happened? Had I ever drunk from his glass? Shared his food? I tried to establish if there had ever been a bridge between his system and mine. Then I thought of him. I thought of gay sex and hard drugs. But Paul wasn’t gay. He had never told me so outright, but I knew him well enough and I had never detected the least ambivalence. I likewise couldn’t imagine him a heroin addict. In any case, that wasn’t it. Three years ago, when he was sixteen, he had gone to Jamaica on a Christmas holiday with his parents. They had had a car accident. Paul’s right leg had been broken and he’d lost some blood. He had received a blood transfusion at the local hospital. Six witnesses of the accident had come along to volunteer blood. Three were of the right blood group. Several phone calls and a little research turned up the fact that one of the three had died unexpectedly two years later while being treated for pneumonia. An autopsy had revealed that the man had severe toxoplasmic cerebral lesions. A suspicious combination.

I went to visit Paul that weekend at his home in wealthy Rosedale. I didn’t want to; I wanted to block the whole thing off mentally. I asked — this was my excuse — if he was sure his parents cared for a visitor. He insisted that I come. And I did. I came through. I drove down to Toronto. And I was right about his parents. Because what hurt most that first weekend was not Paul, but Paul’s family.

After learning how he had probably caught the virus, Paul’s father, Jack, didn’t utter a syllable for the rest of that day. Early the next morning he fetched the tool kit in the basement, put his winter parka over his housecoat, stepped out onto the driveway, and proceeded to destroy the family car. Because he had been the driver when they had had the accident in Jamaica, even though it hadn’t been his fault and it had been in another car, a rental. He took a hammer and shattered all the lights and windows. He scraped and trashed the entire body. He banged nails into the tires. He siphoned the gasoline from the tank, poured it over and inside the car, and set it on fire. That’s when neighbours called the firefighters. They rushed to the scene and put the fire out. The police came, too. When he blurted out why he had done it, all of them were very understanding and the police left without charging him or anything; they only asked if he wanted to go to the hospital, which he didn’t. So that was the first thing I saw when I walked up to Paul’s large, corner-lot house: a burnt wreck of a Mercedes covered in dried foam.

Jack was a hard-working corporate lawyer. When Paul introduced me to him, he grinned, shook my hand hard and said, “Good to meet you!” Then he didn’t seem to have anything else to say. His face was red. Paul’s mother, Mary, was in their bedroom. I had met her at the beginning of the university year. As a young woman she had earned an M.A. in anthropology from McGill, she had been a highly ranked amateur tennis player, and she had travelled. Now she worked part-time for a human rights organization. Paul was proud of his mother and got along with her very well. She was a smart, energetic woman. But here she was, lying awake on the bed in a fetal position, looking like a wrinkled balloon, all the taut vitality drained out of her. Paul stood next to the bed and just said, “My mother.” She barely reacted. I didn’t know what to do. Paul’s sister, Jennifer, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Toronto, was the most visibly distraught. Her eyes were red, her face was puffy — she looked terrible. I don’t mean to be funny, but even George H., the family Labrador, was grief-stricken. He had squeezed himself under the living-room sofa, wouldn’t budge, and whined all the time.

The verdict had come on Wednesday morning, and since then (it was Friday) none of them, George H. included, had eaten a morsel of food. Paul’s father and mother hadn’t gone to work, and Jennifer hadn’t gone to school. They slept, when they slept, wherever they happened to be. One morning I found Paul’s father sleeping on the living-room floor, fully dressed and wrapped in the Persian rug, a hand reaching for the dog beneath the sofa. Except for frenzied bursts of phone conversation, the house was quiet.

In the middle of it all was Paul, who wasn’t reacting. At a funeral where the family members are broken with pain and grief, he was the funeral director going about with professional calm and dull sympathy. Only on the third day of my stay did he start to react. But death couldn’t make itself understood. Paul knew that something awful was happening to him, but he couldn’t grasp it. Death was beyond him.

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What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

Yann Martel's Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian
More Info
Excerpt

BOOK 1:
 
THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYCH
BY LEO TOLSTOY
 
 
April 16, 2007
 
To Stephen Harper,
Prime Minister of Canada,
From a Canadian writer,
With best wishes,
Yann Martel
 
 
Dear Mr. Harper,
 
The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy, is the first book I am sending you. I thought at first I should send you a Canadian work—an appropriate symbol since we are both Canadians—but I don’t want to be directed by political considerations of any sort, and, more important, I can’t think of any other work of such brevity, hardly sixty pages, that shows so convincingly the power and depth of great literature. Ivan Ilych is an indubitable masterpiece. There is nothing showy here, no vulgarity, no pretence, no falseness, nothing that doesn’t work, not a moment of dullness, yet no cheap rush of plot either. It is the story, simple and utterly compelling, of one man and his ordinary end.
 
Tolstoy’s eye for detail, both physical and psychological, is unerring. Take Schwartz. He is in dead Ivan Ilych’s very home, has spoken to his widow, but he is mainly concerned with his game of cards that night. Or take Peter Ivanovich and his struggle with the low pouffe and its defective springs while he attempts to navigate an awkward conversation with Ivan Ilych’s widow. Or the widow herself, Praskovya Fedorovna, who weeps and laments before our eyes, yet without ever forgetting her self-interest, the details of her magistrate husband’s pension and the hope of getting perhaps more money from the government. Or look at Ivan Ilych’s dealings with his first doctor, who, Ivan Ilych notices, examines him with the same self-important airs and inner indifference that Ivan Ilych used to put on in court before an accused. Or look at the subtle delineation of the relations between Ivan Ilych and his wife—pure conjugal hell—or with his friends and colleagues, who, all of them, treat him as if they stood on a rock- solid bank while he had foolishly chosen to throw himself into a flowing river. Or look, lastly, at Ivan Ilych himself and his sad, lonely struggle.
 
How clearly and concisely our vain and callous ways are showed up. Effortlessly, Tolstoy examines life ’s shallow exteriors as well as its inner workings. And yet this pageant of folly and belated wisdom comes not like a dull moral lesson, but with all the weight, shine and freshness of real life. We see, vividly, Ivan Ilych’s errors—oh, they are so clear to us, we certainly aren’t making his mistakes—until one day we realize that someone is looking at us as if we were a character in The Death of Ivan Ilych.
 
That is the greatness of literature, and its paradox, that in reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way, we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker.
 
One quality that you will no doubt notice is how despite the gulf of time between when the story is set—1882—and today, despite the vast cultural distance between provincial tsarist Russia and modern Canada, the story reaches us without the least awkwardness. In fact, I can’t think of a story that while completely set in its time, so very, very Russian, so leaps from the bounds of the local to achieve universal resonance. A peasant in China, a migrant worker in Kuwait, a shepherd in Africa, an engineer in Florida, a prime minister in Ottawa—I can imagine all of them reading The Death of Ivan Ilych and nodding their heads.
 
Above all else, I recommend the character Gerasim to you. I suspect he is the character in whom we recognize ourselves the least yet whom we yearn the most to be like. We hope one day, when the time comes, to have someone like Gerasim at our side.
 
I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We ’re all busy. Meditating monks in their cells are busy. That’s adult life, filled to the ceiling with things that need doing. (It seems only children and the elderly aren’t plagued by lack of time—and notice how they enjoy their books, how their lives fill their eyes.) But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow. And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep. And there are other possibilities, too. Sherwood Anderson, the American writer best known for his collection of stories Winesburg, Ohio, wrote his first stories while commuting by train to work. Stephen King apparently never goes to his beloved baseball games without a book that he reads during breaks. So it’s a question of choice.
 
And I suggest you choose, just for a few minutes every day, to read The Death of Ivan Ilych.
 
Yours truly,
Yann Martel
 
 
 
Reply: May 8, 2007
 
Dear Mr. Martel:
 
On behalf of the Prime Minister, I would like to thank you for your recent letter and the copy of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. We appreciated reading your comments and suggestions regarding the novel.
 
Once again, thank you for taking the time to write.
 
Sincerely,
Susan I. Ross
Assistant to the Prime Minister
 
 
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) was a prolific author, essayist, dramatist, philosopher and educational reformist. Born into an aristocratic Russian family, he is best known for writing realist fiction, focusing particularly on life in Russia, and is considered one of the major contributors to nineteenth-century Russian literature. His marriage to Sophia Tolstaya (Tolstoy) produced thirteen children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. Tolstoy wrote fourteen novels (two of his most famous being Anna Karenina and War and Peace), several essays and works of non-fiction, three plays and over thirty short stories.

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Glorious & Free

Glorious & Free

The Canadians
by Rita Field-Marsham & Kim Bozak
illustrated by Frank Viva
foreword by Yann Martel
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
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