The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] 'Life of Pi' author Yann Martel says fiction yields deeper understanding of society

Upcoming novel 'Son of Nobody' retells the story of the Trojan War in the voice of a commoner

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : June 13, 2023 - 20:23

    • Link copied

Canadian author Yann Martel speaks at a press conference held at the Embassy of Canada to Korea, Tuesday. (Yonhap) Canadian author Yann Martel speaks at a press conference held at the Embassy of Canada to Korea, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Celebrated Canadian author Yann Martel, renowned for his acclaimed international bestseller, “Life of Pi,” which won the Man Booker Prize in 2002, among other prizes, emphasized the importance of reading novels and works of literature.

Martel, who is visiting Korea for the first time, as one of the special guests at the Seoul International Book Fair, which runs Wednesday to Sunday, shared his insights, stories on his books, and hints about his upcoming novels.

"It's not for me to judge how people should spend their time. However, if people have power, then they are more accountable, certainly in a democratic society,” said Martel during a press conference held at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul on Tuesday.

“If (they) have not read a book in years, I wonder where they get their dreams for our democracy,” the author asked.

Martel said leaders have to know the nuts and bolts of social and economic policies, but they should also be dreamers with a vision for the society they lead. While nonfiction tells us the facts about the world, the author said reading fiction is a "very whole-person way to learn about life."

Books have the power to transport readers into others' shoes, granting insights into different lives and fostering a deeper understanding of society, said Martel.

If you read Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” which tells the story of a 12-year-old Black girl from a dysfunctional household in Ohio, during the duration of that book, you know a little bit more about what it might be like to be an African American, to be a female, to be a 12-year-old, explained the author.

“The more books we read like that, the more we live other people's lives and we start seeing how our society is,” he said.

The Special Korean edition (left) and the English edition of The Special Korean edition (left) and the English edition of "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel (Jakka Jungsin Publishing, Mariner Books)

Celebrating 30th anniversary of his literary debut

Martel will be attending the SIBF, where Canada has been chosen as the spotlight country in celebration of the 60 years of diplomatic ties between South Korea and Canada.

On Wednesday, Martel will deliver a talk titled “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” and have a conversation with Korean novelist Kim Jung-hyuk on Thursday. There will be a book signing event on Saturday. He will also take part in a talk hosted by The Daesan Foundation and Kyobo Book Center in Gwanghwamun on Friday, which will be streamed live online.

Martel, who arrived last week with his teenage son and his friends, visited Sokcho in Gangwon Province and the DMZ.

“That was a bit of a shock -- a strange mixture of capitalism and tragedy,” he said. “I haven't been so close to (a country) that is that terrible while being in one that is so much better in terms of freedoms and well-being.”

Martel is also celebrating the 30th anniversary of his literary debut. Local publisher Jakka Jungsin has released a special edition combining his debut collection of short stories, "The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios," with “Life of Pi,” which has sold over 120 million copies in over 50 countries.

Reflecting on his career, Martel said, “As a human being, I'm getting older and hopefully maturing and getting wiser. As a writer, I've evolved too. You get a sharper eye, more efficient, and I'm getting more experimental,” he said.

What keeps him going is that he finds writing “exhilarating.” “There’s nothing more thrilling for me than finding a story idea that works,” he said.

“I've been very successful with the ‘Life of Pi,’ so I'm not really worried anymore about ‘success.’ I just want to tell the stories that I want to hear,” he said.

“But I'd say my approach has always been quite philosophical. ... To me, writing and art are a kind of life philosophy. So that hasn't changed,” he added.

Canadian author Yann Martel speaks at a press conference held at the Embassy of Canada to Korea, Tuesday. (Yonhap) Canadian author Yann Martel speaks at a press conference held at the Embassy of Canada to Korea, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

New books on Trojan War and Alzheimer’s

Martel’s upcoming novel, “Son of Nobody,” is due out next spring. Inspired by Homer's “The Iliad,” the novel is a modern twist on the tale of the Trojan War.

“I was familiar with the Greek myths but I'd actually never read the book,” Martel said. “I thought it might be a slightly dull classic. … But it's not at all an ancient work. It is ancient, but at the same time, it's very contemporary.”

In Homer’s epic, only kings, princes and nobility have dialogue, save for one exceptional character named Thersites, who rails against Agamemnon and questions the purpose of the war.

“In a sense, we live in the same world dominated by kings and princes who are rich. And we have commoners who don't have enough voice,” Martel said.

“So in my retelling, it's told from the point of view of a commoner, who was a friend of Thersites, and his name is Psoas.”

Martel further revealed that the book will employ an experimental format: the top half of the page will be the Greek epic in verse, while the lower half will feature footnotes penned by a fictional Oxford scholar named Harlow Donne.

While waiting for his editors to read his Trojan War rendition, Martel did something he had never done before: writing another entire book in three months.

“The book is to do with Alzheimer’s,” he said. “It'll be quite an experimental novel, playing with this idea of the loss of memory and therefore the loss of narration. So I wrote the first draft of that already.”