Struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible

April 15, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Beatrice & Virgil. Yann Martel; Knopf Canada, $29.95 cloth, 220 pp., 978-0-307-39877-2.

First, a bit of context. Following the monumental worldwide success of his 2001 novel, Life of Pi, Yann Martel spent a great deal of time deliberating on his follow-up. Not one to lack for ambition, Martel eventually settled on a flip book, printed back to front, with two covers. One half of the flip book would be a novel, the other half would be an extended essay. The subject of both would be the Holocaust. Martel presented this idea to his editors, all of whom balked.

Flash forward to 2010. Yann Martel’s new novel, Beatrice & Virgil, opens with a writer named Henry, who has experienced huge success with his second novel, a book that concerned itself with wild animals. In the wake of that novel’s broad acclaim, Henry spends five years conceiving, researching, and writing its successor. The book he delivers is … a flip book containing a short novel and an essay about the Holocaust.

In Beatrice & Virgil, as in real life, the flip book idea meets with resistance. Henry partakes in a “catastrophic” lunch during the London Book Fair, at which Henry attempts to justify his idea to four editors, a bookseller, and an historian:

Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it’s true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn’t become story, it dies to everyone except the historian. Art is the suitcase of history, carrying the essentials. Art is the life buoy of history. Art is seed, art is memory, art is vaccine.

All of which sounds very philosophical and weighty, but Henry’s listeners have much more prosaic concerns, such as where to put a bar code on a book with two front covers.

By the end of the lunch, Henry’s book has been completely dismantled, and the author is utterly demoralized:

That was the whole meal, a blundering lurch from the frivolity of over-refined food to the dismemberment of his book, Henry quibbling and squabbling, they reassuring and wrecking, to and fro, back and forth, until there was no more food to eat and nothing left to say. It all came out, wrapped in the kindest words: the novel was tedious, the plot feeble, the characters unconvincing, their fate uninteresting, the point lost; the essay was flimsy, lacking in substance, poorly argued, poorly written. The idea of the flip book was an annoying distraction, besides being commercial suicide. The whole was a complete, unpublishable failure.

The result of this disastrous meeting is that Henry stops writing, packs up his wife and new son, and moves to an unnamed city, where he takes up the clarinet and begins acting in a local theatre troupe. It is at this point that he receives a package from an anonymous correspondent, containing a copy of Flaubert’s story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” a scene from a play, and a short note asking for Henry’s help. The letter turns out to be from a local taxidermist who is stuck writing a play about two characters named Beatrice and Virgil.

By now, even the least attentive reader will be reeling from all the levels of metafictional gamesmanship that Martel is engaging in. Beatrice and Virgil are Dante’s guides through the afterworld in The Divine Comedy, but here they are, respectively, a donkey and a howler monkey. Henry’s popular second novel featured wild animals, and the taxidermist – who is also (and not accidentally) named Henry – has highlighted all the sections dealing with cruelty to animals in Flaubert’s story.

As Henry (the novelist) becomes more deeply involved with Henry (the taxidermist), it becomes apparent that the latter’s play, entitled A 20th Century Shirt, is in fact an allegory about the Holocaust. In other words, Henry (the taxidermist) is writing the story Henry (the novelist) proposed for his flip book. The irony here is obvious, but also somewhat vacant; at best, it involves an authorial thumbing of the nose at all those people who told him his idea was unworkable.

The snippets of the play that are interspersed into the narrative are clearly modelled on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: two characters on a stage that is bare but for a lone tree, expounding dialogue that is spare and absurdist:

VIRGIL: But speaking of which, what day is it today?
BEATRICE: Saturday.
VIRGIL: I thought it was Friday.
BEATRICE: Maybe it’s Sunday.
VIRGIL: I think it’s Tuesday.
BEATRICE: Is it possibly Monday?
VIRGIL: Perhaps it’s Wednesday.
BEATRICE: It must be Thursday then.
VIRGIL: God help us.

If there is any doubt about the literary provenance of the play, it should be put to rest by a short passage a bit further on in Martel’s novel:

VIRGIL: We should go then?
BEATRICE: We should.
(They do not move.)

It also becomes apparent that Beatrice and Virgil are figures on a striped shirt, a shirt of the kind that Jews were forced to wear in camps during the Holocaust. What we have, then, is a series of metafictional conceits, literary and historical allusion, narrative and drama all abutting one another. Martel has created not so much a novel as a pastiche of forms and approaches, all of them circling his central subject: how to approach the appalling fact of the Holocaust through the prism of art.

“My book is about representations of the Holocaust,” Henry tells his inquisitors at that London Book Fair lunch. “The event is gone; we are left with stories. My book is about a new choice of stories.” As a mission statement for his novel, Martel could hardly have chosen something more grandiose, but his book fails in the execution. It never finds a cogent mechanism for translating the horrifying events of the Second World War into allegory, in the way Art Spiegelman did in his groundbreaking graphic novel, Maus (one of the books Henry name-checks as inspiration for his project). Henry (the taxidermist) fixates on cruelty to animals, both in the highlighting of Flaubert’s story and in an horrific scene of violence that befalls Beatrice, but in so doing he calls the book’s moral centre into question: there is a revelation late in the novel that comes perilously close to intimating that Henry (the taxidermist) is more moved by the fate of abused animals than he is by the deaths of six million Jews during the war.

It may be the case that the Holocaust is one of the events in human history, so excoriating in its horror, so incomprehensible in its cruelty, that it resists translation into an artistic form such as allegory or fable (think of Jerry Lewis’s unfinished film The Day the Clown Cried or Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful). “In addition to the knowledge of history,” Henry says, “we need the understanding of art. Stories identify, unify, give meaning to. Just as music is noise that makes sense, a painting is colour that makes sense, so a story is life that makes sense.” True enough, but what is equally inescapable is that the fact of the Holocaust doesn’t make sense, can’t make sense. Martel struggles valiantly to wrestle art out of his subject, but is ultimately defeated by the subject’s own enormity.


2 Responses to “Struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible”
  1. Concerned CanLit Fan says:

    Why do you have Israel so much?

  2. Yes, Steven, why DO you have Israel so much? And you leave it lying around all the time. So much Israel, you have!

    Seriously, While I haven’t yet read this, I like your review. But even if Martel does not succeed in ‘wrestling art’ from the Holocaust, I will heartily applaud his attempt.