Author Yann Martel to share a piece of 'Pi'

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Yann Martel's life is pregnant with possibility, literally and figuratively.

His first child, a son named Theo, is 19 months old, and a daughter is due at the end of May.

The writer, who delighted readers with "Life of Pi" and explored the Holocaust in "Beatrice and Virgil," also is at work on a new novel. He speaks tonight at 7:30 as part of the Drue Heinz Lectures in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall.

Yann Martel
  • Where: Drue Heinz Lecture Series at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.
  • When: 7:30 tonight.
  • Tickets: $15, $25. 412-622-8866 or

The author's new book is set in the high mountains of Portugal; its main characters are three chimpanzees, one of whom is a sculptor. Some rhinoceroses figure in the plot, too.

Mr. Martel, 47, is Quebecois so his mother tongue is French, but he writes in English. His new novel wrestles with this question: "How do we keep the wisdom of great teachers alive once they have gone away?"

Great teachers are "people who influence, people who mold us" and could include everyone from "your grade 11 history teacher, who was fantastic" to Jesus, Buddha and Karl Marx, he said in a recent telephone interview.

Mr. Martel said the novel also will consider, "How do we make sure that their wisdom doesn't become rigid, doesn't become dogma? So, each one of the three parts of the novel will look at a different aspect of that dynamic."

As a high school sophomore in Canada, Mr. Martel was impressed by Mr. Saunders, his geography teacher.

"He made what he taught really interesting. I found school very stimulating. I wasn't at that stage where school was more about crowd control," he said, adding that he was fascinated by logarithms, the way Earth operated and the history of humanity.

He will draw on that classroom experience and better-known instructors.

"The archetypal teacher in the West might be Jesus -- someone who never wrote. He was in a living relationship with his disciples, talking to them, correcting them, answering their questions. I'll be using him in a sense."

The author said he has pondered these particular questions since he was in his 20s, and he has finally figured out a way to weave them into a story.

"Everyone is mortal, and their living effort lasts only so long. We have to keep their contribution alive somehow. The wisdom of our civilization is the efforts of millions and millions of people. Some make much bigger contributions to human advancement. The Supreme Court takes the wisdom of American founding fathers and tries to keep their wisdom alive. It's tough."

The effort to keep wisdom alive and relevant can be made in every field, he said.

"The greatest contribution we make in our lifetime is what we do as parents. If we are great parents, that will show in our children."

Earlier this year, Mr. Martel finished a project called "What is Stephen Harper Reading?" (A complete reading list can be found at

The writer sent 201 books to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who said he did not have time to read. While campaigning for election in Canada in 2004, Mr. Harper said his favorite book was the "Guinness Book of World Records."

That answer, Mr. Martel said, is what he "would expect of a 15-year-old boy, not of a man who was about to lead the affairs of state.''

Mr. Martel is an outspoken critic of Mr. Harper, saying, "He's both rigid and dangerously soft. There's more of a vacuum there than there was with [President] George [W.] Bush."

All the books the author sent were 200 pages or less; each one arrived with a letter outlining why the book was worth reading.

Mr. Harper's staff, the author said, responded with seven perfunctory thank you notes.

"There was no willingness to engage with me in any way," Mr. Martel said.

By contrast, President Barack Obama sent the author a handwritten note, saying how much he, Sasha and Malia enjoyed reading "Life of Pi."

Reading can make you humble and less rigid because when you read, Mr. Martel said, "You increase your empathy. You become less certain about things."

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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