Thursday, June 14, 2012


by Yann Martel
Published in 1996
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Canada
ISBN: 978-0-571-21976-6

Our protagonist is born in Spain in the early 1960s, the son of Canadian diplomats. He grows up in Canada, Europe, and Costa Rica. He attends a prestigious boarding school in Canada and is accepted to university in Ontario. There are many musings about the nature of life, gender, and sex, as seen through the eyes of our young hero.

So far, our protagonist (who is never named, although there is a solitary mention of having an androgynous given name) has led a life which precisely follows the same course of the author's. It is perfectly natural for the reader to assume that Self is an autobiographical memoir. The reader reads on...

Our protagonist spends a summer in Portugal before going to university. She takes classes in philosophy and literature, and the summer after her first year she travels to Greece where she meets an older American woman. The two women travel through Greece and Turkey together while enjoying a steamy lesbian love affair. Our heroine returns to Canada and conceives of a novel.

If our heroine thinks it the least bit strange that she used to be a boy and now she's not, she never lets on. If anything, her gender switch is a natural outgrowth of her/his childhood confusion about the nature of sex and gender.

Self is an odd little novel, possibly equal parts autobiographical and pure fiction, not that I really have any means of knowing.

When it was published, author Yann Martel was a Canadian literary author of very limited renown with a bunch of short stories to his name. Self was his first successfully published novel. It did not result in his becoming well-known. Nor, I suspect, did he expect it to. For the first couple of years of its published existence, Self seemed destined to go down in history as a middling work by one of the fifty preeminent living literary figures in the province of Saskatchewan. An OK book, readable but not brilliant.

Then Martel published another novel. This one was about a boy and a kittycat in a boat.

The boy-and-kittycat-in-a-boat book was rather more widely read than Self was.

It garnered rather higher praise than 'readable but not brilliant'.

It caused Yann Martel to have a higher public profile than he did before. In short, it is the sole reason why there are people who are not authorities on modern Canadian literature who are familiar with Self today.

One must feel some sympathy for Yann Martel. Now famous as the man who wrote that brilliant book about the boy and the kittycat in the boat, he apparently has looked back on his earlier work Self as 'terrible' and has wished 'it would disappear' (according to a Sydney Morning Herald book review).

It's not that bad. It's not mind-bendingly, gender-blastingly brilliant, but it's not that bad. I was cheerfully willing to oblige Martel as he led me on a tour of our gender-roaming hero(ine)'s love life and oddball literary projects.

The rape scene. It comes near the end of Self and was clearly meant to be brutal. I'm not sure what to think of it, as it contrasted starkly with what came before. I shall have to put my subconscious to work integrating the entire novel into a cohesive whole.

As it is, Self may be 'terrible' by the author's own estimation, but it has more parts that stick in my mind and won't go budge than many books which are much better.

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