Life of Pi writer tackles the Holocaust in new book

Martel says new work is not autobiographical, despite all the similarities

Canadian author Yann Martel wants to explore the Holocaust through the words of artists as well as survivors, and he does this in a quirky, unexpected way in his new novel, Beatrice & Virgil. (Photo by Geoff Howe)
Canadian author Yann Martel wants to explore the Holocaust through the words of artists as well as survivors, and he does this in a quirky, unexpected way in his new novel, Beatrice & Virgil. (Photo by Geoff Howe)

TORONTO (CUP) — In his new novel, Beatrice & Virgil, Canadian author Yann Martel uses Holocaust imagery to tell the story of Henry.

This story opens with Henry having just finished his own Holocaust novel. He flies out to London to meet with his publisher and several booksellers at a literary festival, where he is instead met with what he describes as a “firing squad” — a troop of colleagues who pick apart every facet of his masterpiece and leave him disheartened.

Henry decides to run for cover from the cutthroat publishing world and move to a big city with his wife to start new.

There, Henry meets an enigmatic taxidermist who seeks out the writer’s help finishing an equally enigmatic play about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. Henry finds himself enthralled with the mysterious nature of the play. However, as an unquestionable series of Holocaust images and themes boil to the surface, he begins to wonder if they reflect the taxidermist’s sociopathic behaviour.

In Beatrice & Virgil, Martel uses Henry as a metafictional guise to convey his own Holocaust commentary, putting a unique spin to the idea of a Holocaust novel.

“It wasn’t because of any desire to be autobiographical,” Martel said in an email, commenting on his use of a protagonist with whom he shares obvious similarities.

“I have no such desire,” said Martel. “[I did it] rather because it suited my fictional purpose. It allowed me to discuss some ideas on the Holocaust and it allowed me to introduce a writer who stops writing and falls into silence.”

“I liked that premise since I think that silence is a common reaction to the Holocaust. This silence can represent many things: grief, reverence, incomprehension, boredom — whatever the case. If it lasts too long, it becomes a problem. Silence is the same as forgetting when it comes to history.”

Martel’s objective in Beatrice & Virgil is to combat this silence in a different way; it’s another reason he started with a writer dumbfounded and struggling for words as the protagonist.

“My artistic hypothesis for this novel was that we need to react to the Holocaust not only through the words of survivors and historians, which has been done amply and very well, but also through the words of artists, that is, through works of the imagination.”

Another important aspect of Beatrice & Virgil is how it reinforces Martel’s love of using animals in his story telling. Readers can also see this very strongly in his debut novel, Life of Pi.

“I think there’s the major advantage [in] that people are less cynical about animals than they are about other people,” Martel said. “A character that is human elicits suspicion, in- difference and annoyance more easily than a character that is an animal.”

“Animals, in our highly urbanized lives, come veiled in a cloak of marvel and wonder. We look at wild animals with longing and nostalgia, with a feeling that they represent something that we’ve lost,” he explained.

Martel also found that animals fit well in the genre of the Holocaust novel because of they can be used as anthropomorphic symbols or characters satirizing human behaviour in a fable.

“I leave it to readers how to interpret the play and the taxidermist’s motives. Is he seeking to redeem himself? Or hide something? Or merely to point to a current holocaust of the animal world? It’s for readers to decide. Whatever his intent is, mine was to evoke the humanity of the victims. So Beatrice & Virgil, for all their donkeyness and monkeyness, are profoundly human.”

When asked if he thought Beatrice & Virgil treaded any new ground for a Holocaust book, Martel said his goal when writing the book was not to seek newness.

“I’m happy to rely on that ‘old’ feeling that the Holocaust has evoked: Utter horror. I seek to portray that utter horror in a new fashion, in this case, using the animal fable. So the message is old, but the messenger seeks to be new.”

Beatrice & Virgil proves to be precisely what Martel intended: A new way of breaking the silence and representing a horrifying event that must never be forgotten. In this, he joins the likes of Maus writer Art Spiegelman and Everything is Illuminated author Jonathan Safran Foer as a writer who has managed to tread dangerous water gracefully.

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