Kangaroos and other animals, Yann Martel in Canberra

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WHEN HE knew he’d be visiting Canberra, there was one thing on the mind of Man Booker prizewinning author Yann Martel – kangaroos!

Yann Martel
Yann Martel

For no sooner was the author of “Life of Pi” on the ground here than he’d asked a helpful taxi driver where he could find our most famous native animal and ended up seeing 20 or more of them near Weston Park, on what sounds like a circuitous journey to the Hotel Realm.

But of course Martel also loves getting about and attending festivals, which is why he is here as a guest of the Canberra Writers’ Festival.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it”, he tells “CityNews” today, “and at age 53, I still like travelling…I could easily live in a hotel room.”

As for festivals, “it’s part of the social contract between a writer and the people who read his books,” he says.

Sure, Martel agrees, there are shy authors like Nobel laureate JM Coetzee but even he will go to a festival if there’s an opportunity for him to enjoy his favourite sport, cycling.

We can feel flattered that Martel considered Australia among the world’s desirable destinations, because with four young children – he got started late in life – it’s not so easy for him to travel the world these days.

And talking about social contracts as he was, what about that delicate social contract between humans and animals, delineated most famously in “Life of Pi”, where a Royal Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker pits his strength against that of the narrator? With more personality than Kipling’s Shere Khan, he is an alpha-male force to be reckoned with.

By no coincidence it is an animal, a chimp, which features as one of the main characters in Martel’s newest novel “The High Mountains of Portugal.”

“In writing about the way we relate to animals you ask the bigger questions, you get the bigger picture, you ask why we are here,” Martel says.

While he does not reject the scientific view that humans should leave the animal world to its own devices, to him it is in religion that the real relationship of man to animal is very much to the fore – in Judaism and Hindu, for instance.

Martel’s family does have a domestic animal, a Havanese dog, by no means an alpha male but a very tiny girl dog, but domestic animals can’t quite match his literary characters, for one thing, we talk to them in English.

Unexpectedly, while on a writing residency in Berlin, he found himself having to give a series of lectures on animals in literature, but it wasn’t that hard for him, as he believes that if we don’t care for animals, “we lose something.”

He had also noted  that the Old Testament was full of animals – the Garden of Eden at the Ark packed with creatures, and there was the mythical Leviathan. “Animals interest me as a symbolic vehicle”, he says In the New Testament, which very much revolves around the person of Jesus, animals are not seen for their own sake, although he does admit to a rooster, a donkey and various animals in the manger.

Fear not, there will be animals in his next novel, of which he has written 75 pages over the last few days, he’s felt so inspired. It will be set against  the Trojan War. He’s recently read Stephen Mitchell’s recent translation of the Iliad and was very excited —  and that has at least one very famous horse in it.

Yann Martel is a guest of the Canberra Writers Festival, Friday, August 27 to Sunday August 28. For bookings and full program details visit canberrawritersfestival.com





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