I have just finished reading Yann Martel’s 101 Letters to Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of the title was Canada’s Stephen Harper, and the letters take the form of personal recommendations of novels, short stories, poetry and drama, together with the added spice of Martel’s tangential thoughts and comments.
Stephen Harper was reputed never to read novels, short stories, poetry or drama. In that respect he was not unlike many in this world, but unlike them he was someone with a certain amount of power, a high-profile public figure whose decisions affected countless Canadians for better or worse.
That Yann Martel loves writing is evident, not only in his own work — Life of Pi being probably the best-known internationally — but also in the joy with which he read and re-read the selection he sent to Stephen Harper, every two weeks for four years.
The purpose of his dogged, patient, generous, driven project was to try and encourage a man with a considerable effect on other human beings to become more of a human being himself. And if such a goal might sound like the fantasy of an insufferably arrogant writer with ideas beyond his station, then the tone, the humility and the genuinely humane tenor of these pages ought to convince the reader he is not. And that is not to assume that Prime Ministers (or politicians, or bankers, or Chief Executives, or Presidents) cannot also be readers, or attentive to the human condition: TS Eliot was a banker, Kafka an insurance clerk. And Barack Obama, a President of the United States as sane, balanced and compassionate as anyone in power can be in this unsettled world, actually wrote personally to Yann Martel to let him know how much pleasure the reading of Life of Pi had given him and his wife, Michelle.
The 101 Letters is a fine, eclectic carpet-bag of novels and short stories — from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych to Junot Díaz’s Drown; Animal Farm to A Clockwork Orange; Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse to Anaïs Nin’s Artists and Models; children’s books, graphic novels, poetry, Waiting for Godot, the Bhagavad Gita, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Niebelungenlied: the list could go on to the end of all 101choices.
Sadly, though, this sender of books, with their attendant thoughtful, enthusiastic and humane observations and exhortations, received not a single reply. Not a thank-you, not even a hastily-scribbled Post-It note to say: Very kind of you, pal, but I never read a damn thing that isn’t to do with being Prime Minister of Canada. No. The nearest Yann Martel got to any kind of response were a few acknowledgements from a Prime Ministerial secretary that could just have well have been issued by a semi-educated Satnav.
I have to say, however, in the interests of fairness, that I have only Yann Martel’s word for all this. Being no more acquainted with Stephen Harper than I am with Kim Jong-un, I can’t be certain that he was not an avid reader who simply objected to being sent unsolicited material by an upstart Canadian Mann Booker Prize-winning author and literary celebrity; or that he never came within sniffing distance of the books, which were spirited unseen onto the shelves of the Governmental Library, or passed on by the secretary to family and friends as Christmas gifts.
Whatever the destiny of these chosen works and their commentaries, I think we should be happy that writers such as Yann Martel blow the trumpet for literature and the expansive effect that encountering others’ cultures, emotions, proclivities, spirit, can have on us human animals. Henry Miller did something similar for me many years ago, when I was but a long-haired and bearded trog. His The Books in My Life introduced me to such writers as Blaise Cendrars, whose work I have not seen in a British bookshop or library to this day. Thank you, both.