On April 13, over seven years after he came out of nowhere to win the Booker Prize for what has remained one of the most popular novels of the last decade, Life of Pi, Yann Martel will release his next novel, Beatrice and Virgil. In the meantime, he's put his plans for the new novel through many versions (which you can get a hint of from what seems a very autobiographical opening to the new book, which tells the story of how a bestselling author named Harry had to abandon his great plans for a flip-book version of his new book, one half a novel and the other a nonfiction essay, a plan that Martel himself described to me, and no doubt to many others, for Beatrice and Virgil a couple of years ago). I've just had the chance to begin reading Beatrice and Virgil, and I can report that it is fully in the Martel style: graceful, funny, and provocative, as he embarks on a fictional experiment whose outcome you can't come close to guessing (50 pages in and I still haven't seen any sign of the donkey and monkey I know are coming at some point).
But in the past few years, he's also been fully immersed in another experiment in fiction, a two-person (and apparently one-way) book club he started called What Is Stephen Harper Reading? Starting in April 2007, inspired by the prime minister of Canada's indifference toward the arts and by what Martel sees as the shortage of "stillness" in his busy administrative life, Martel has sent a book to Prime Minister Harper every two weeks, along with a letter explaining his choice (which he also posts to his blog of the same name). He has only received a few replies, all of them form letters sent by Harper's office, and as far as I know no other public acknowledgment from the PM. (The first two years of letters were collected last fall in a book published in Canada under, yes, the same name.)
But now that he's about to embark on a lengthy book tour for Beatrice and Virgil, Martel's going to take a break from his biweekly correspondence. On Monday he posts his last letter for a few months, and he's allowed us to post a sneak peek at it over the weekend. His book choice is Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and you can read the full text of his letter here. And as you will see below, Harper's reading schedule will not be neglected while Martel is on the road: he's asked a series of fellow Canadian authors to make their own selections, and write their own letters, while he's gone. Their names, and their choices, will be surprises, beginning on March 15.
Maybe one of them will send Harper a copy of Beatrice and Virgil...
March 1, 2010
The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa ON K1A 0A2
Dear Mr. Harper,
The coolest thing happened to me last week. There was a stiff, mid-size envelope in my mailbox. I don't get as much mail as you do, but I do get my fair share (and I don't have any staff to help me with it). So what was this, what request, what demand? I noted that it came from the US. I opened it. Between two pieces of cardboard, a smaller envelope slipped out. On the front, top left, was the return address: The White House, Washington, DC 20500. I was intrigued. Not The White House. I opened the envelope, and there it was, on White House letterhead, a handwritten note from President Obama. I do believe my heart skipped a beat. A week later I'm still gingerly taking the note out to marvel at it. The President of the United States wrote to me"”to me! For sure I'm going to have the note framed. If there was a way of tattooing it on my back, I would. What amazes me is the gratuity of it. As you would know, there is a large measure of calculation in what public figures do. But here, what does he gain? I'm not a US citizen. In no way can I be of help to President Obama. Clearly he did it for personal reasons, as a reader and as a father. And in two lines, what an insightful analysis of Life of Pi. Bless him, bless him.
There's a paragraph on page 104 of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that summarises the attitude I'm talking about:
He could barely stand any longer. But he kept on somehow. Shukhov [that is, Ivan Denisovich] had once had a horse like that. He had thought highly of the horse, but had driven it to death. And then they had skinned the hide off him.
He had thought highly of the horse, but had driven it to death"”and with no explanation as to why. It's just what you do. And the "he" mentioned at the start is not another horse but a human being, a fellow prisoner, one whom Ivan Denisovich also thinks highly of and will just as blithely see worked to death. One feels like crying out, Where's the humanity, the benevolence, the compassion? Well, there's precious little of that in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This short novel tells the story of an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary prisoner in the Gulag, the massive forced labour camp system that was nearly a parallel society in Communist Russia. At most, the roughest of fraternity is fleetingly expressed during moments when fear and want have momentarily abated. At all other times, each prisoner strictly looks out for himself. It makes for appalling living, lucidly documented by Solzhenitsyn, and a searing indictment of what Stalin did to his own people.
I sent you, nearly three years ago now, Animal Farm, by the English writer George Orwell. It's interesting to compare that novel and Ivan Denisovich. Both works cover the same ground, but very differently. The first portrays the evil of Stalinism by means of allegory, the second by means of realism. Which do you prefer?
I need to inform you of a temporary change in our little book club. Up till now, it's just been you and me. But I'm leaving on a four month trip soon, in part to promote my next novel, and I was worried that the logistics of getting a book and a letter to you every two weeks while on tour would be too much of a strain. So I've decided to invite other Canadian writers to join our literary journey. I'm glad about the decision. This is certainly a case of making a virtue of necessity. After all, why should I be alone in making reading suggestions to you? My knowledge of the book world is very limited. Why not plumb the literary depths of other writers?
So your next book and letter, to be delivered to your office in exactly two weeks, on Monday, March 15th, will come from a different Canadian writer. I won't tell you who"”let it be a surprise"”nor do I have any idea what the next book will be. That too will be a surprise.
encl: one inscribed paperback