by Yann Martel,
384 pages,
ISBN: 0394281608

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First Novels - The Knopf Four
by Eva Tihanyi

Yann Martel, the thirty-three-year-old author of the acclaimed story collection The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, is possibly the most innovative of the group, in both form and content. Self is a first-person account of one "self" (never named), the son of Canadian diplomats, who aspires to be a writer. In a sudden overnight Kafkaesque transformation, he wakes up on his eighteenth birthday as a woman. (The fact that we, as readers, though craving an explanation for the change, can accept this transformation without flinching says much about Martel's skill.) Self's parents have died in a plane crash the previous year. So, financially set for life, Self enrolls in university, travels, tries to understand his/her own sexuality.

Martel plays with sexual conventions, the implications of gender; he shakes the kaleidoscope regularly so that the pieces, though the same, always re-form into an unexpected pattern. He embraces diversity, and in a voice that doesn't falter, explores the complex issue of identity, how one's language, culture, and body coalesce into that elusive idea called "self". And he's not afraid to take chances, discuss bodily functions, the physicality of being human. (His description of menstruation is probably the most explicit ever included in a novel.)

He also plays with language, at times placing a column in English down one side of the page with a translation or "addition" in a parallel column. For example, alongside a scene describing Self's relationship with her lover Tito's Hungarian parents, Martel tells-in Hungarian-the story of Bluebeard, providing a surprising subtext to what to the eye appears a merely a translation of the English. The writing itself is imaginative and vigorous. Consider, for example, Self's view of German: "With its words as long as novellas, its syntax like a mediaeval cathedral and its grammar like Einstein's science, German became my favourite foreign language."

In short, Self is a deceptively simple title for a work that is as complex as the word itself.


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