The author, the philistine PM and a crusade with no happy ending
Wednesday 02 February 2011
It may be one of the least likely (and wrong-headed) labours of literary love of our times. For nearly four years, Yann Martel, the acclaimed Canadian author of the Life of Pi, has been sending personally selected books to his Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the vague hope he might be enriched by them. Or at least read them.
The books – 100 of them each accompanied by a letter from Martel – arrived at the office of the Prime Minister in Ottawa like clockwork every other Monday. But yesterday, the Mann Booker Prize-winning novelist declared he was done. What he called his "little book club" with Harper was disbanded.
It was the thanklessness of the enterprise that apparently got to the writer who dispatched his 100th and last offering, Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, this week. Mr Harper, a conservative who has led Canada since 2006, has not written once in return, although Martel did receive five three-line letters from the PM's staff over the years.
The quixotic attempt at education of a Prime Minister began after Martel and 49 other Canadian writers attended a 2007 event in Ottawa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Council for the Arts. Although he was there too, Mr Harper barely acknowledged them, Martel's agent, Jackie Kaiser said yesterday. "He was very offended," she said. "Harper had already made clear he just isn't a reader."
That seems finally to have sunk in and Martel is turning his creative focus elsewhere, notably to a new book and to the welfare of his partner who is "heavy with second child".
"I can't understand how a man who seems never to read imaginative writing of any kind (novels, poetry, short stories, high-brow, middle-brow, low-brow, anything) can understand life, people, the world," he told The Independent last night. "I don't care if ordinary people read or not. It's not for me to say how people should live. But people who have power over me? I want them to read because their limited, impoverished dreams may become my nightmares."
Martel's unrequited adventures in literary largesse have all been recorded on a website called www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca. (Not much, apparently.) Thus, the rest of us can sample the books discarded by Canada's leader. The collection includes novels, poetry, biographies and plays and honours writers ranging from Albert Camus to Somerset Maugham, EB White, JM Coetzee and Douglas Copeland.
Lest Mr Harper be hurt by the sudden ending of the relationship, Martel goes to some length to explain in the letter accompanying the final book. "100 is enough," he tells the PM. "That's a lot of letters and books. And come to think of it, it's the same number of chapters as in my novel Life of Pi."
Extracts from the letters
No 1: The Death of Ivan Ilych (Leo Tolstoy)
"I know you're very busy, Mr Harper. We're all busy. Meditating monks in their cells are busy. That's adult life... It's a question of choice. And I suggest you choose, just for a few minutes every day, to readThe Death of Ivan Ilych."
No 3: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie)
"You might have noticed that I have been sending you used books. I have done this not to save on money, but to make a point... a used book, unlike a used car, hasn't lost any initial value. A good story rolls off the lot into the hands of its new reader as smoothly as the day it was written."
No 35: Under Milk Wood (Dylan Thomas – audio CD)
There's talk of an election this fall. That means a lot of travelling for you. I suggest you pack a few audiobooks for those long bus and airplane trips you will have to endure. My only advice is to avoid abridged versions. Otherwise, select as you please. Murder mysteries are particularly effective—as is poetry.
No 51: Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare)
SinceJulius Caesaris about power and politics, we might as well talk about power and politics... In Act III, Scene 3 ofCaesar,you will meet Cinna the poet. He is torn to pieces by the rabble, who mistake him for another Cinna, one of the conspirators. That is not the Canadian way. Here in Canada, at this time, it is the Canadian government that is attacking Cinna the poet. But perhaps I've misunderstood. You are an honourable man and you must know what you're doing.
No 100 Scorched (Wajdi Mouawad)
People who are too beholden to work become like erasers: as they move forward, they leave in their wake no trace of themselves. And so that has been the point of my fruitless book-gifting to you: to raise my voice against Canada becoming a nation of erasers.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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