Self, p.1
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Self


  Praise for Self

  "Superb ... Masterfully written.... Martel has an almost otherworldly talent.... He is a powerful writer and storyteller, almost a force of nature."

  -- The Edmonton journal

  "A brilliant, and very funny exploration of growing up, with Martel's characteristic perceptiveness, eye for ironic detail and gift for phrase turning.... A fresh pair of eyes on the extramundane world around us."

  -- The Financial Post

  "It is in the presentation of the story that [Martel's] true genius lies. The way in which he positions the words on the page charges his language in a way that eludes even many of the finest Canadian novelists."

  -- The Vancouver Sun

  "Yann Martel wonderfully represents the child's universe as a seamless whole.... A penetrating, funny, original and absolutely delightful exploration.... [Martel] is a natural and often brilliant essayist and expositor, with a knack for aphorism and a rich cultural and literary foundation."

  -- The Globe and Mail

  "Extraordinary.... Only rarely, in works by Martin Amis, Nicholson Baker or Kazuo Ishiguro, say, does one come across a character or narrator so perversely and entertainingly intelligent, witty and articulate. Martel ups his protagonist's appeal with a life history that manages to be both imaginatively accessible and romantically exotic.... Martel's narrator has some interesting things to say about the human condition ... and he says those things eloquently and with disarming wit."

  -- NOW

  "So vigorous and confident and sure-footed ... so compelling, that Self's education does end up being part of the reader's. Like all good educations, it is hard to forget, once absorbed."

  -- The Toronto Star

  "A narrative orchestrated by an outspoken 'I' that is candid, intelligent, likable, life-embracing, protean, chatty, smug, and mischievous ... Martel is a bright, amiable, enthusiastic writer with an original, playful mind that he is not afraid to use."

  -- Quill & Quire

  Also by Yann Martel

  The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

  Life of Pi

  VINTAGE CANADA EDITION, 1997

  Copyright (c) 1996 Yann Martel All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

  Originally published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, in 1997. Originally published in hardcover in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, in 1996. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

  Vintage Canada and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House of Canada Limited.

  The Hungarian passage is from Bluebeard's Castle by Bela Bartok.

  Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

  Martel, Yann,

  Self

  eISBN: 978-0-30737563-6

  I. Title.

  PS8576.A765IS4 1997 C813'.54 C95-932906-4

  PR9199.3.M37S4 1997

  www.randomhouse.ca

  v3.1

  Contents

  Cover

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  A Note on the Author

  Pour leur soutien durant la creation de cette oeuvre, je tiens a remercier le Conseil des arts et des lettres du Quebec, pour la bourse; Valerie Feldman et Eric Theocharides, pour leur hospitalite; et Alison Wearing, pour tout le reste. For their support during the writing of this novel, I would like to thank the Arts Award Section of the Canada Council, for the grant; Harvey Sachs, for laying before me the splendour of Tuscany; Rolf Meindl, for the computer help and the sofa to sleep on; and Alison Wearing, for everything else.

  a l'une, survivante to one who survived

  a l'autre, disparue to another who didn't

  CHAPTER ONE

  I AWOKE and my mother was there. Her hands descended upon me and she picked me up. It seems I was mildly constipated. She sat me on my potty on the dining-room table and set herself in front of me. She began to coo and urge me on, running her fingers up and down my back.

  But I was not receptive. I distinctly remember finding the woman quite tiresome.

  She stopped. She placed her elbows on the table and propped her head on her hands. A period of fertile silence ensued; I looked at her and she looked at me. My mood was in suspense. Anger was there, lurking. So was reconciliation. Humour was hovering. Sulking was seeping. It could go any way, nothing was decided.

  Suddenly I stood up mightily, like the Colossus of Rhodes, I bent forward a little, and in one go I produced. My mother was delighted. She smiled and exclaimed:

  "Gros caca!" "Big pooh!"

  I turned. What a sight! What a smell! It was a magnificent log of excrement, at first poorly formed, like conglomerate rock that hasn't had time to set, and dark brown, nearly black, then resolving itself to a dense texture of a rich chestnut hue, with fascinating convolutions. It started deep in the potty, but after a coil or two it rose up like a hypnotized cobra and came to rest against my calf, where I remember it very, very warm, my first memory of temperature. It ended in a perfect moist peak. I looked at my mother. She was still smiling. I was red in the face and sweaty from my efforts, and I was exultant. Pleasure given, pleasure had, I sensed. I wrapped my arms around her neck.

  My other earliest memory is vague, no more than a distant feeling that I can sometimes seize, most often not. Being so dimly remembered, perhaps it came first.

  I became aware of a voice inside my head. What is this, I wondered. Who are you, voice? When will you shut up? I remember a feeling of fright. It was only later that I realized that this voice was my own thinking, that this moment of anguish was my first inkling that I was a ceaseless monologue trapped within myself.

  Later memories are clearer and more cohesive. For example, I remember a cataclysm in the garden. At the time I thought the sun and the moon were opposite elements, negations of each other. The moon was the sun turned off, like a light-bulb, the moon was the sun sleeping, the dimples on its surface the pores of a great eyelid, the moon was solar charcoal, the pale remains of a daily fire -- whatever the case, one excluded the other. I was in the garden at a very late hour. It was summer and the sun was setting. I was watching it, blinking, squinting, burning my eyes, smiling, imagining the heat and the fire, the sizzling of entire neighbourhoods. Then I turned and there it was floating in the sky, grey and malevolent. I ran. My father was the first figure of authority I encountered. I alerted him and dragged him out to the garden. But his adult mind didn't grasp how this apparition threw my understanding of astrophysics topsy-turvy.

  "C'est la lune. Et alors?" Je me cachais derriere lui pour me proteger de la radioactivite. "Viens, il est tard. Temps de faire dodo." "It's the moon. So what?" I was hiding behind him to protect myself from the radioactivity. "Come, it's late. Time for bed."

  He took my hand and pulled me indoors. I glanced a last time at the moon. My God, it was a free orb. It moved at random in the universe, like the sun. Surely one day they would clash!

  My earliest aesthetic experience revolved around a small, clear plastic bottle of green-apple bubble-bath. To my parents a casually accepted free sample at the supermarket, it was to me a jewel that I discovered while my mother was giving me a bath. I was held in thrall by its endless greenness, its unctuous ooze, its divine smell. It left me dumb with pleasure.

  When someone thoughtlessly made use of it a week later and I came upon my disembowelled treasure -- I vividly recall the moment:
my mother was wiping my bum and I was idly looking at the bathtub -- I shrieked and threw the worst tantrum of my toddlerhood.

  Other facts of my early life that are held to be important -- that I was born in 1963, in Spain, of student parents -- I heard only later, through hearsay. For me, memory starts in my own country, in its capital city, to be exact.

  Beyond the normal overseeing of parenthood, neither my mother nor my father intruded unnecessarily into my world. Whether my space was real or imaginary, the bathtub or the Aral Sea, my room or the Amazon jungle, they respected it. I can't imagine having better parents. Sometimes I would turn and see them looking at me and in their gaze I could read total love and commitment, an unwavering devotion to my well-being and happiness. I would delight in this love. There was no cliff I couldn't jump off, no sea I couldn't dive into, no outer space I couldn't hurtle through -- where my parents' net wouldn't be there to catch me. They were at the central periphery of my life. They were my loving, authoritarian servants.

  At the supermarket I would gambol about happy and carefree, playing with the cereal boxes, shaking the big bottles of mouthwash, looking at all the funny people -- as long as I had my mother within sight. But if -- the momentous if -- if she skipped an aisle unexpectedly while I was still staring at the packaged meat, wondering what the cow looked like now -- if she dashed for the fruits while I was still examining the jars of pickles -- if, in other words, she became lost to me, that was a very different state of affairs. My body would tense, my stomach would feel light and fluttery. Tears would well up in my eyes. I would run about frantically, oblivious of everything and everyone, my whole being concentrated on the search for my mother. When I caught sight of her again, as, thankfully, I always did, the universe would instantly be re-established. Fear, that horrible boa constrictor of an emotion, would vanish without a trace. I would feel a hot burst of love, adoration, worship, tenderness, for my sweet mother, with somewhere in there a brief roar of intense hatred for this brush with oblivion she had put me through. My mother, of course, was never aware of the existential fluctuations, the Sturm und Drang, within her small fry. She sailed through the supermarket serenely indifferent to my exact location, secure in the knowledge that she'd find me right next to her by the time she got to the check-out. That's where the chocolate bars were.

  I cannot recall noticing, as a small child, any difference between my parents that I could ascribe to sex. Though I knew they weren't the same thing twice over, the distinctions did not express themselves in fixed roles. I received affection from both of them, and punishment too, when it came to that. In the early years in Ottawa it was my father who worked outside the home, at the Department of External Affairs, which had an awesome ring to my ears, but my mother was working at home on her Master's thesis in linguistics and philosophy. What my father did during his daylight hours at External was unknown to me, and therefore remote. My mother, on the other hand, wrestled daily with stacks of thick books, in Spanish yet, and she produced endless reams of paper covered with her precise handwriting. I was a witness to her labour. Her thesis was on the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. She fetched a hammer once and held it in front of me and told me that the nature of a hammer, its being (her word), was defined by its function. That is, a hammer is a hammer because it hammers. This was one of Ortega y Gasset's key insights, she told me, fundamental to his philosophy, and Heidegger had filched it. Pretty obvious to me, I thought, I could have told you that, I thought, but I was nonetheless duly impressed. My mother was clearly involved in deep and difficult matters. I took the hammer and went outside and bashed dents into the edge of our driveway, reinforcing the hammer's identity.

  So while my mother sat at home pondering over hammers, perhaps my father sat in his office pondering over screwdrivers. Anyway, this state, this dichotomy, was temporary; a few years later my mother also joined External Affairs.

  In other ways, too, my parents were indistinguishable from each other. Housework was shared, as far as I could tell, but I'm not a reliable witness since I fled at the least sign of domesticity, for fear of being asked to do something. Both my parents were so-so cooks. To be fair, my mother did handle some dishes well, and she displayed more imagination than my father, who overcooked eggs throughout my childhood. But he made delicious tacos and a superb tortilla de papas, potato omelette. In later years it was he, I think, who did most of the cooking. In their postings in Mexico and Cuba, they were delighted (and I when I visited) to have a live-in cook.

  On the question of punishment: only when I had committed the most heinous of offences was I spanked, and this mildly, more tapping than whacking. I screamed blue murder anyway, because I knew this was the ultimate punishment and therefore called for the ultimate wailing. I believe I was spanked three times in my life. Other than that, my parents never raised a hand to me. At most, when he was exceptionally angry and was chastising me, my father would hold me just above the elbow to ensure that he had my full attention, and sometimes he would squeeze and it would hurt a little. It was rare that my mother got truly angry at me, though when she did, when she narrowed her eyes and fixed me with them and hissed through her clamped jaw, it was a source of real terror. I knew then that in shaving Luna's mother's dog bald with a hair-clipper or in burning down a neighbour's hedgerow I had gone too far, and I would hurt inside and I would do everything to make things better. Mercifully, it was only a few times that I provoked her to such anger.

  My parents got along very well. In fact, I have never seen such a harmonious, complementary couple. She was highly articulate. He was a published poet. She had a disciplined mind that could work with great intensity, a mind that was always open to the world. He had lost his father when he was ten and was a rather moody, brittle man, prone to melancholy, yet he had a capacity to marvel at things. She had a naturally optimistic bent and she loved the arts. They nourished her soul and her wisdom. Her emotions were never wrong. He and I discovered writers together -- the wonderful Dino Buzzati, for example -- and we both had a fondness for golf, a game we hardly ever played. There is a long-ago black and white photo of the two of us on a beach in France: he surrounds me and our four hands are holding a golf club which he is showing me how to swing. The camera catches me just as I am looking at it, a smile on my face, one eye peeking through wind-blown strands of my long hair. It was she who was appointed Canada's ambassador to Cuba. She was more prudent, more apt to find the fruitful, pragmatic compromise. He sometimes had a daring, a willingness to seize the day.

  I remember fantasies I had as a child of having to choose between my parents. They were on crosses being tortured and I had to decide which one to let live. Or was I being tortured to force me to choose? If I ever settled on one, I can't remember who it was.

  At the last minute my father, by then a translator, editor and desktop publisher, decided to accompany my mother to Mexico City, where she was going for a regional conference of Canadian heads of missions. Not fifteen minutes after leaving Havana the plane was a ball of fire crashing into the Gulf of Mexico. Such is the intrusion of the tragic, when one becomes aware of the turning wheels of life. But I am getting ahead of myself. I must first deal with carrots and washing machines and many other things.

  Though there are notable exceptions, it often happens that we do not remember the first time we did something, or even any one particular time, but remember only the repetition, the idea that we did the thing over and over. This is the case with me and the boiling of carrots. I spent entire afternoons watching carrots boil in water. Our rented house in Ottawa was so arranged that, from the chair on which I stood near the stove, I could turn and see my mother working at her desk (or rather, our rented house in Ottawa was so arranged that, from the chair on which she sat at her desk, my mother could turn and see me staring into my pot). When the carrots were terminally mushy, which I would determine with a long fondue fork, I would call out and she would come to the kitchen. She would empty the pot into the sink, fill it with fresh
cold water and set it on the stove again. Then she would get back to work, giving me a peck on the cheek on her way. I was old enough and more than careful enough -- there were never any accidents -- to be left with the thrilling task of selecting from a large plastic bag the hardy specimens, thick and orange, that I would drop into the water so that the spectacle could start again. During those afternoons my imagination boiled and bubbled like that exuberant water. I explored, made deep connections. It was the transformation from hard to soft that fascinated me, my mother said later. Indeed, from my earliest years the idea of transformation has been central to my life. Naturally so, I suppose, being the child of diplomats. I changed schools, languages, countries and continents a number of times during my childhood. At each change I had the opportunity to re-create myself, to present a new facade, to bury past errors and misrepresentations. Once, secretly, I boiled the hammer, wondering if its fundamental nature, its being (her word), could change. When I started to lose my baby teeth and was told that larger, more durable teeth would grow in their stead, I took this as my first tangible proof of human metamorphosis. I had already gathered evidence on the metamorphosis of day and night, of weather, of the seasons, of food and excrement, even of life and death, to name but a few, but these teeth were something closer to home, something clear and incontrovertible. I envisioned life as a series of metamorphic changes, one after another, to no end.

  I abandoned the boiling of carrots when I discovered the washing of laundry. Staring down into the toss and turmoil of clothes being cleaned mechanically is the closest I have come to belonging to a church, and was my introduction to museums. I followed every step of the absolution of laundry, these stations of the cross from filth to salvation, this lineup at the Museum of Modern Art. It would start with my mother fooling the washing machine's safety stop by jamming a coin at the back of the machine's lid -- the price of admission to the exhibit, the alms dropped into the alms box. I would hurry to my pew atop the dryer. The laundry was pushed into the machine like so many wicked souls into hell. The powder detergent settled like snow, at places as thick as on a plain, at others as sparse as on an escarpment, my first glimpse at landscape painting. The hot water rose slowly, a gentle immersion into grace -- something I felt intimately since this was exactly how I took my baths, sitting shivering cold in the empty tub while the hot water crept up, submerging goose-pimple after goose-pimple, the comfort of warmth all the greater for the misery of cold. The water would stop rising, there would be a moment's pause to collect ourselves, a click, and then high mass would start in earnest. I took an evangelical pleasure in the to-and-fro motion of laundry being sermonized. It was a tempest-tossed sea in which my small ship, my soul, was braving the frothy waves. It was Davy Jones's locker in which I, a spat-out Jonah, frolicked alongside a school of socks. And then it was a painting -- abstract expressionism in its purest, most ephemeral form. For entire cycles I would watch this kinder, broader-stroked Jackson Pollock feverishly at work in his studio. Dashes of red succeeded swaths of green. Eruptions of white overwhelmed spots of purple. Five intertwined colours danced together before vanishing to blue. The drama was generous and open, truly ecumenical. When the washing cycle was over, the holy water would retreat through the pores of the washing machine's barrel. I would behold a cavernous sculpture, hell empty. The laundry would begin to spin. I could feel the water seeping away, oozing out of me. Suddenly a torrential tropical storm would whip at me. Was this temptation? And after that another storm! But this one too I would weather. A final click and it would be over. I would call my mother. Shirts, skirts, blouses, underwear, pants, socks and I came out of the machine renewed, remitted of our sins, damp with vitality, shimmering like Christ rising on the third day. And the coin at the back of the lid was mine!

 
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