Yann Martel is no longer just a promising young author. With Life of Pie, his second novel, he has earned himself this year's Man Booker Prize. He is only the third Canadian to win this prestigious award for literature written in English (Michael Ondaatje won for The English Patient in 1992, and Margaret Atwood for The Blind Assassin, in 2000). Martel first came to public attention by winning the 1991 Journey Prize for his short story The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (later published as part of a collection under the same title). His first novel, Self, was nominated for the 1996 Books in Canada First Novel Award. From all of us at Books in Canada, a hearty congratulations for this spectacular victory.
While Canadians seem to be garnering literary recognition around the world, a look at the acrimonious and now very public argument between Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens leads one to suspect that some sort of deep ennui has settled into English intellectual life. Amis, in his book Koba the Dread, and Hitchens, in a series of vociferous essays, have engaged in a debate that feels like something teleported from a different time, a thirty-year-old private conversation that we are now overhearing. Such a conversation may have had some little public resonance in the 60s, and would have been but a faint echo of the fierce, passionate debates of the formidably equipped public intellectuals of the 30s and 40s. Amis has written a book that adds little to the picture of Stalin drawn by Robert Conquest's Great Terror (1968) and Robert C. Tucker's Stalin in Power (1990). Koba the Dread yes, but the real conundrum, as Roy Medvedev, the dean of Russian liberal historians suggests, is that "the more Stalin cold-bloodedly destroyed millions of people, the greater seems to have been the dedication to him, even the love, of the majority of the people." Recent historical studies, such as Robert Thurston's Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941 (1996), have looked at post-Soviet collapse records to argue that "more people believed in Stalin's quest to eliminate enemies than were frightened by it."
Hitchens seems to hold to a clutch of ideas that must have been drilled into him by the aging veterans of the 1940s debates he encountered in the 60s. He boasts about his affiliation with Trotskyism, but seems not to have moved up the road marked by such courageous intellectuals as Koestler, Popper, or Von Hayek. The argument between Amis and Hitchens seems like a reenactment of a fifty-year-old debate, but with none of that debate's passion, and certainly with no evidence of the personal courage of intellectuals from that era ű really, what are they risking?
Sheila Isenberg has written an important book on the life of Varian Fry. A Hero of Our Own is a detailed account of how a young, Harvard-educated American structured and oversaw the rescue of German refugees trapped in southern France after the German occupation. Those Fry helped escape¨using forged passports and secret routes through the pyrenees to Spain¨included preeminent writers, artists, and scientists (the fictional German-born scientist, Anton Boll, in Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden is likewise aided in his escape by members of Fry's network). The young Fry worked tirelessly to help those who would have otherwise perished; he even orchestrated escapes from prison camps such as Le Vernet, "a special punishment camp", where inmates "considered politically dangerous" were "brutally beaten and punished, often with no reason". Approximately 1500 individuals managed to flee France because of Fry.
Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born novelist, journalist and critic, and one of the 1500 aided by Fry, describes his experience in Le Vernet in his autobiography Scum of the Earth (1941). But even before that Koestler had made his mark with the novel, Darkness at Noon (1940), an indictment of the Soviet regime which represented a resolute break from Europe's mainly Communist-minded intellectual community.
Other items: Christopher Wiseman provides a superb review of Eric Ormsby's Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation, a book that should have been nominated for this year's GG's but inexplicably wasn't. Keith Garebian comes aboard as a reviewer of plays and theatre books. He kicks off with a piece on the recently staged King Lear. And Marius Kociejowski, a poet living in London, England, has contributed the first of a series of witty, whimsical essays. It's all Lunar talk. Read it for laughs.