Biography of Yann Martel

Yann Martel was born on June 25, 1963, in Salamanca, Spain, to Emile and Nicole Martel, but spent his childhood living in a variety of different countries, including Costa Rica, France, India, Iran, Mexico, Turkey, Canada, and the United States. His parents, civil servants, were of French-Canadian descent, and their family eventually settled in Montreal.

Martel attended Trent University from 1981 to 1984, but graduated from Concordia University with a BA in philosophy in 1985. After graduating, along with writing and considering a career in politics or anthropology, he worked many different odd jobs—librarian, tree planter, dishwasher, security guard, and parking lot attendant. At the age of 27, he committed himself to writing.

Martel published his first work, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, a collection of four short stories, in 1993. It received warm critical reception, although it did not sell well. His first novel, Self, was published three years later, to more mixed reviews, and to similarly small sales. It is a fictional autobiography of the first thirty years of the narrator’s life and involves two spontaneous gender changes.

After these two disappointments, Martel traveled to India to work on a third novel and figure out where his life was headed. He quickly realized the novel he was working on was going nowhere - but then he remembered something he had read about years before, and the idea for Life of Pi came to him.

Life of Pi was published in 2001 to warm, although somewhat mixed, critical reception, and, along with winning the Man Booker Prize, became an international best-seller. Many critics praised the book’s ability to suspend disbelief even as it tells an amazingly fantastical tale. Those that had problems with the book most often referred to what they saw as Martel’s heavy-handedness with the issue of belief in God, which they considered to underestimate both literature and religion. Other critics, however, praised Martel’s handling of the potentially controversial religious material.

At the height of the book’s popularity, there was a short-lived scandal involving an accusation of plagiarism. Martel has acknowledged that he thought of the premise after reading a review of the English translation of Moacyr Scliar’s Max and the Cats; the Brazilian press accused Martel of cribbing that book. The similarities between the books, however, are few, and nothing came of the charges.

Martel is currently based in Montreal, although he frequently lives internationally. In 2002 and 2003, Martel worked as a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin, Germany.

Study Guides on Works by Yann Martel

Life of Pi began with some casual reading. Yann Martel was perusing through John Updike’s rather negative review of Max and the Cats, a story about a Jewish family who run a zoo in Germany during the years leading up to the Holocaust. They decide...