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Culture & Religion

Finding the Meaning of Life Through Fiction

Atheism makes for “great blood sport“—at least that is what writer Yann Martel believes.  But the writer is far more interested in what cannot be reasoned, and in his Big Think interview he says he thinks some of life’s mysteries are better left for the heart rather than the brain. “Whether it’s Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, they’ve all had their excesses, but nonetheless, there’s something afoot in that kind of thinking that I think augments a life.”

That sense of mysticism comes out in his writing. In both his breakout Man Booker Prize-winning novel “Life of Pi” and his most recent novel “Beatrice and Virgil,” Martel grapples with life’s mysteries in the form of allegories.  His characters, some of them animals, become vehicles for the writer to solve life’s problems. The main character in “Pi” seeks greater meaning in life, and in “Beatrice and Virgil,” the writer tries to find meaning in the absurdity and brutality of the Holocaust. 

Martel also has embarked on a quest to bring the lessons of fiction to the public realm.  His efforts have led to a Web site, and a campaign called “What is Stephen Harper Reading?” The mission is simple: to send a new work of fiction to the Canadian Prime Minster every two weeks, along with a handwritten note explaining why that work was chosen and why it should be read.  Martel says that it is through literature that one can see life through the “other,” making us better people—and thus he thinks literature can make politicians into better leaders.  As yet, Prime Minister Harper has not written back.


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