Thoughts on a book: Yann Martel’s ‘101 Letters to a Prime Minister’.

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 Cendrarswhose work I have not seen in a British bookshop or library to this day. Thank you, both.

 

A bit of self-publicity…

Just to let people who may be interested know, I have my first novel on Amazon, printed and Kindle versions. Having waited in vain for agents to even acknowledge my e-mails, I have decided to self-publish because I would like people to READ it.

It’s called Zazou and Rebecca, and is set in Southern France, in the Languedoc, where my wife and I spend several months each year.

Now, doing it this way and in this area may have completely gone against blogging protocol, and, if so, I would be very happy to put this info. in the right place. Please advise!

Ready, get set…

All I know about this post is that I am going to introduce myself and lay down what I might write about.
My name is David Pearson. I was born in Dudley, in the West Midlands (formerly the glorious county of Worcestershire) at a time when the streets could be smog-bound and the canals were slicked with oil and choked with all manner of industrial and domestic debris, including unwanted pets. This was not long after WWII. 1950, to be precise. On the birth-date of Thomas Hardy, to be even more precise.
I wandered the streets of Dudley and Birmingham until I was eighteen, then travelled further afield to Europe and Asia. In 1973, my wife and I moved to Jersey, Channel Islands, where I wrote and painted, intending to write or paint as a career. Instead, I became a non-qualified teacher with three children. From there, we decided on Somerset, where I became a (now-qualified) teacher of English, Drama, Art and French, writing in my ‘spare’ time and amassing hundreds of pages of poetry, prose and jottings, most of which I didn’t have the confidence to send out for publication. I also **** Buddhism. (I need to insert a word or phrase here that suggests I took a keen interest in/was absorbed by Buddhism, but that I didn’t formally commit to ‘being a Buddhist’). That personal involvement has not diminished, though the Sangha (Buddhist community) aspect has always felt a bit tricky. More on that in my ‘Buddhist Musings’.
The time to retire from full-time teaching arrived after I fell down the school steps and shattered. Although I continued with Somerset County Council, I worked in a centre comprising small groups and individuals for whom school was no longer an option. I also became part of the Virtual Classroom, communicating through the internet with those who could not even face going to the centre. Some of them were unable to leave their bedrooms or talk to their own parents, but these very ones did, in many cases, achieve qualifications in the ‘core’ (or their own choice of) subjects via the wonderful Virtual classroom platform.
Once I had become a full-time retiree, I was able to finish a novel that I had been working on when I could. Again, more about that elsewhere. And to tackle a trek across the Pyrenees. There are things to say about that, too.
But that’s more than enough for the moment. I shall try and ‘blog’ quite regularly: it’s a case of getting into the habit. I shall, as all good bloggers do, discuss what I have read and seen; link to, and recommend others’ blogs, books, poems, exhibitions, activities, organisations; issue the occasional left-wing pinko liberal diatribe against political and institutional stupidity (plenty to mention there) and neo-fascism and white supremacy and sexism, ageism, youngism, tongueism, even, when necessary (eg the treatment by some harm-no-living-creatures-and-work-for-the-welfare-of-all-sentient-beings Burmese Buddhist priests of the Rohinga people is beyond despicable) Buddhism. Bye for now.