Author Yann Martel wants to inspire imaginative depth within prime minister

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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TORONTO - Canadian author Yann Martel hopes to inspire an "imaginative depth" within Prime Minister Stephen Harper with a series of letters and literary works he's been mailing the PM for over two years that have been put together in a new book.
"I suspect we have with Harper - and maybe he's not the first, but it's the first time I've noticed - I think we have someone who in a sense is post-literate," Martel, who won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002 for "Life of Pi," said in a recent interview.
"Of course he can read, of course he's read books, of course he's able to absorb a lot of information and he's very intelligent.
"But I suspect in the making of the man, literary culture - so in other words, what novels, short stories, poems can bring to a person - that aspect hasn't been very important so that's what I mean by he's post-literate."
"What Is Stephen Harper Reading?", which hits shelves Saturday, contains 55 of the letters that Martel has sent to the prime minister every two weeks since April 2007.
Each letter describes the used book it accompanied - from poetry and plays, to children's books and classic and contemporary literature - and why Harper should read it.
Martel began the correspondence after going to the House of Commons in late March 2007 to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts.
During the celebration, then-heritage minister Bev Oda did a speech that lasted less than five minutes.
The prime minister didn't speak at all, and Martel wasn't impressed so he mailed him a copy of "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy and a note saying he should try to read it "just for a few minutes every day."
"Initially I just wanted to say: 'Listen, books are important, books are an essential tool of reflection for a society and let me remind you of this by showing you all these wonderful books and what they can do to a reader,"' said Martel, who lives in Saskatoon.
Martel's tone in the letters is always genial, even as he expresses dismay over government cuts to arts programs.
In the book's introduction, Martel writes that while he doesn't know if Harper likes to read, he did say during the 2004 election campaign that his favourite book is the "Guinness Book of World Records."
"What worries me about people who have power who I sense haven't read literature is, I wonder: Where do they get their insights into life? Where do they get their sensibility? What makes them cry? How did they get beyond their own narrow life experience?" said Martel.
"Because each one of us, however bright we are, however rich and varied our life is, we still live only our narrow life and so how does someone in Ontario experience the Great North? How do we experience Africa, how do we experience the Holocaust, how do we experience the life of animals, how do we experience outer space?
"How do you do that if not through books, and if you haven't done that, then I worry about the limitations of their imagination."
As of Thursday, Martel had sent 10 more books with accompanying letters since "What Is Stephen Harper Reading?" went to print, for a total of 65 works.
The number of replies he's received so far from the Prime Minister's Office is five.
"They're all sort of quite mechanical replies just acknowledging receipt of the book and 'Thank you for the letter' and that's it," said Martel.
"They're all about the same length and the same nature, none directly from him. Each from a different person."
Martel plans to continue the correspondence as he puts the finishing touches on his next novel while trying to spend time with his 2 1/2-month-old son, Theo.
The upcoming book, which doesn't have a title yet, is a Holocaust tale as told through animals that he hopes to have out by spring or fall of 2010, under publisher Knopf Canada.
Martel said he's trying to do what George Orwell did with Stalinism in the novel "Animal Farm."
"It's a very heavy, complicated, sprawling topic. What Orwell managed to do is transfer and get to the essence of it by talking about this farm in England with these animals and everything goes wrong because of this pig named Napoleon who perverts the ideal," said Martel.
"It's all about the perversion of the ideal but told in this delightful, light tone. That's a perfect example of what literature can do: It can encapsulate a tragic event and make it accessible."

Organizations: House of Commons, Canada Council for the Arts

Geographic location: TORONTO, Saskatoon, Ontario Africa England

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