The Man, or the Tiger?

Yann Martel
Yann Martel; drawing by David Levine

Halfway through Yann Martel’s first novel, Self (1996), the young first-person narrator abruptly decides to write a novel that will “address this matter of God.” This sounds a bit whimsical at first. It appears to be part of the same impulse to startle the reader that makes Martel leave some pages blank in Self, or fill several of them in his collection of stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993) with nothing more than the words “blah-blah-blah-blah.”

But this matter of God turns out to be very important to the narrator of Self, who, like Martel himself, was born to French-Canadian diplomat parents in the early Sixties, spent a nomadic childhood in several countries, and is a student of philosophy. He describes falling unhappily in love, discovering masturbation, being bullied at school and bored at college. He has watched a lot of television—“it would be impossible,” he asserts, “to talk of my childhood without mentioning television.” He describes losing his virginity, and backpacking through the exotic East. It sounds like a privileged life—one that he shares with many Canadian men of his class and generation—but quite early on in it he has begun to feel restless, and to long for some kind of transcendence.

A similar sort of discontent is spelled out more clearly by the narrator of the title story in the collection The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, who also partly shares Martel’s background, and who denounces “the insipidity, comfort and insularity” of life in Canada, particularly for his generation, which “has had it good and easy.” The first-person narrator of another story in the same collection, “The Mirror Machine,” concludes that in North America “materialism is a heaviness, a tragic distraction.” In an interview last year with The Washington Post, Martel appeared to confirm that he had given part of his experience and outlook to his fictional narrators. He described himself as a “good, middle-class boy” who had become a “seeker.” He questioned the primacy of “reason” in modern life. He thought that it “kills mystery” and leads to “a common thing in the West, a kind of spiritual hunger.”

To the narrator of Self, for whom life in North America “lacked the spirit that would have turned each step into a dance step, with its proper measure, rhythm and grace,” the turn toward God is both aesthetically and psychologically appealing. As he writes,

Occasionally I could intuit how much grander the march of life would be if God were. At such moments the truth or falsity of God’s being seemed irrelevant. It was a fiction of such magnitude, why not believe it? What was gained by a truth that left one with an empty feeling? I could get by without God in the illusory infinity of my daily hours, but if I were in a plane about to crash, would I not miss Him? Would…

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