The controversy belongs to Yann Martel, author of the great Life of Pi, a favorite here for many years. His new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, has the audacity to re-imagine the Holocaust as an allegory involving talking animals, stuffed animals, and a writer who seemed very familiar to us.
The narrator of Beatrice and Virgil is Henry, author of a best-selling novel concerning wild animals that has earned him many fans. For his follow-up book, Henry conceives an ambitious project, a two-sided book, one part novel and one part literary essay, about the Holocaust. His reasons for writing this book are thoughtfully related in a brief, eloquent commentary on the nature of art and tragedy — and there are many, brief, enlightening asides on various subjects throughout the book, none indulgent or without significance to the the larger story, despite what objectors would have you believe — and in one of book's most memorable scenes, early on, Henry meets with his editors, a bookseller and an historian to discuss why his new book is a marketing disaster. It's a hilarious comment on the publishing business and sets the unflappable Henry off in a new direction — moving with his wife to an unnamed city, acting on impulses such as taking up acting, music and language lessons, and working in a coffee shop.
The turn comes when Henry encounters one of his fans, a peculiar taxidermist who owns a wondrous back-alley shop, filled with a veritable ark of stuffed exotic creatures. The taxidermist tries to enlist Henry to help him fix a play he has written, the story of a donkey and a howler monkey on a Godot-esque odyssey across a giant shirt. So intrigued is Henry by the excerpt — a delicious eight-page scene in which the monkey describes a pear to the donkey, who has never seen or tasted one — as well as the man's menagerie of stuffed creatures, that he agrees to visit and help the man flesh out his play, engaging in a complicated relationship that will play out in compelling ways.
Without speaking to specifics, so that the reader can take this journey with all surprises intact, the effect of the book reminded us of reading Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, literary artists who couch their fantasies in the deceptively plain-spoken language of realism. There is a similar ease and seductiveness to Martel's narrative, and often we wondered if what he was telling us wasn't thinly veiled truth. Such was the case in Life of Pi. It may be that the writing is so honest and accurate that when things turn odd, as they ultimately do in Martel's fiction, it creates such rare, powerful emotions that we want it to be real. Readers who finish Pi inevitably ask: is it real? It's a question the book provokes explicitly. As the author, who no doubt gets his share of this question, writes in Beatrice and Virgil: "There's nothing like the unimaginable to make people believe."
One of the more delightful aspects of book-selling is that we so often get to meet the authors and lift the curtain on the creation of these stories we love. Several years ago, before Life of Pi became the It-Book of Summer 2001, we spent an evening talking books with Yann Martel in Oxford, Mississippi. He was as thoughtful and elliptical as his stories and regaled us with tales of his world travels and exotic encounters. Even then, before the full scope of the novel's success had been realized, Yann told us about his next book, the story of a donkey and a howler monkey traveling across a shirt. The novel would be an allegory about the Holocaust. It seemed a stretch, but if anyone could pull it off, surely this man, whose dynamic and fantastical novel we'd just read and loved, could do it.
Several years later, in 2008, we had the pleasure of hosting Yann and his friend/illustrator Tomislav Torjanac at Turnrow at a booksigning for the lovely illustrated edition of Life of Pi. There he told us that his new book had morphed into a two-sided "flip book," the first half of the novel of the monkey and donkey and the flipside an essay about the Holocaust.
Finally, the book arrived, and after reading it, and knowing the original conception, we were all surprised and delighted to see how the ideas were ultimately represented in the new novel. And we couldn't help but wonder, did his editors really gang up and dissuade him from his flip-book idea? Or is this the typical long and twisted conceptual journey of a novelist who tells his complicated stories in a very easy, straight-forward style?
Prompted, like his many fans, to know "was it real?", we hunted Yann down and asked him outright how it all came to be.
"It was indeed a long journey," Yann said when we finally reached him. "The novel started as a novel-in-the-form-of-a-play. I wanted a play-like novel for two reasons. I find the words that people say when they are under stress to be the most true. The written word can be so crafted and edited that it's emotional core can be lost. But the spoken and spontaneous word is tattooed to emotional truth. So I wanted lots of dialogue. And then I wanted a play because I find the Holocaust has been over-historicized and overly geographically rooted. When we think of the Holocaust, we throw our minds back and we see the hinterlands of Poland. I think the capital of the Holocaust is the human heart and its roots live there in an eternal present tense. So I wanted a stage because stages are universal, could be anywhere, in Poland, but also in London, New York, New Orleans or, indeed, Oxford, Mississippi.
"But the play didn't work. It just didn't work. I then wrote an essay to try to understand the Holocaust better. Then I went back and rewrote the novel, adding the new structure with the writer and the taxidermist and fragmenting the play. I next thought that I'd publish them together, which was nixed by my publishers NOT for the reason given in the novel. They simply thought that the essay would drag the novel down, would put it in a box. So we dropped the idea of the flip book. I rewrote the novel one last time and, voila, there it is, fresh and new and me exhausted."
Yann's depiction of the world of taxidermy really came to life in the novel, and we were curious if he dabbled in the trade as research.
"I read an article in a newspaper about the burning down of a well-known taxidermy shop in Paris and a lightbulb lit up over my head. Artists and historians are like taxidermists, trying to bring the past back to life. And it can succeed, but the result, even when of high quality, has an inherent nostalgic quality. A beautifully mounted bear, say, may look and feel like a live one, but we know that it's dead. It was that poignant quality that made it a fitting symbol for this novel, I thought."
Still, we couldn't help but feel that this novel had one foot in
fiction and the other in reality, almost like a fictional memoir. The
experience of the narrator, especially in the beginning, appeared to
mirror Martel's own, and it possessed the authority of real life.
"Beatrice and Virgil is not as autobiographical as you might think. I don't play the clarinet. I don't act in an amateur troupe. I don't speak German. Nor have I ever suffered from writer's block. Those elements were added in to make Henry imitate the lively artistic life of Europe's Jews, and just as Henry is blind to the taxidermist's character, so the Jews were blind to the fate Hitler intended for them. As for Henry being famous, the Jews too are a 'famous' minority, much better known than other minorities. So my intent was more metaphorical than autobiographical. But if people read it in other ways, that's fine with me. A book is an open door."
Maybe it's out of fashion for a writer to be so blunt about the construct of a novel. Martel marches to his own beat, despite his great commercial success, and is a thoughtful writer who takes big risks. He has essentially deconstructed his own novel, both in interviews and in the very book itself, turning the novel inside out and letting us see its working pieces, and perhaps this is what rankles critics.
But perhaps what has frustrated them most all is the book's flimsiness as a statement on the Holocaust, which it is not. The Holocaust is a theme swimming beneath the surface. It is explored as a metaphor by the writers in the story. This is a novel about many things, but mostly, it seems to us, about how we invent stories to give meaning to things which are important to us. And it is extremely effective as such because Martel is very good at telling stories. But he is not conventional. Rather than solving his own mysteries, he leaves us with questions, just as he did in Life of Pi, and to the adventurous reader, that can be exhilarating.
Beatrice and Virgil is a novel which demands to be discussed, and it has encouraged us to revive the Backporch Book Club at Turnrow. We'll meet in late May to talk about this book, so drop by and pick up a copy. We have signed first editions.