Review: Beatrice and Virgil

Mellifluous but mistaken foray into the Shoah


By John Nathan, June 17, 2010
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Yann Martel:  animals bear witness

Yann Martel: animals bear witness

By Yann Martel
Canongate, £15.99

How can Holocaust survivors talk about their experience? This is the question at the heart of Yann Martel's new book. That, and: how do you follow your first novel when that was a prize-winning, stonking great hit?

The vehicle for addressing these questions is Beatrice and Virgil, the follow-up to Martel's Booker-winning debut, Life of Pi. Its central character is an author called Henry, who himself cannot answer the one about the second novel. Like Martel, Henry has written a book inspired by the Holocaust. Unlike Martel, he fails to get it published, largely because he cannot answer his doubting publisher's question: "But what is it about?"

Since Henry's first book was highly successful it is fair to say that Martel's protagonist is based upon himself - and reasonable to assume that Martel's objective, like Henry's, is to discover how, or whether, writers of fiction can write about the Holocaust.

The problem is that this particular inquiry is 20 years out of date. Today's capacious Holocaust canon contains the naff (musicals) and the bogus (memoirs) alongside the definitive testimonies - along with Holocaust fiction (a category in which Henry mistakenly includes Art Spiegelman's Maus, which was in fact a memoir).

Not a great start, then, to base a book of such ambition upon a shaky premise. So when Henry identifies the stylistic approach which has yet to be taken to the Holocaust, more than a whiff of self-justification is detectable. Why, Henry asks, is the Holocaust so resistant to "artful metaphor"--- artful metaphor being the shtick with which this author in search of a subject has, like Martel, made his reputation.

And, once Henry's Holocaust book is turned down by his publisher, he turns back to his trade-mark style. He and his wife Sarah move to an unnamed city, where he meets an eerie taxidermist who needs Henry's help to complete his Beckettian play.

In place of the bleakly comic pairing of Vladimir and Estragon waiting so poignantly for Godot, Martel's would-be playwright borrows his protagonists from Dante, with one rather significant alteration - Virgil and Beatrice are, respectively, a talking monkey and donkey. Clues to their past are revealed in piecemeal scenes read out by the mysterious preserver of animals, from which we learn that Virgil and Beatrice are starving victims of atrocity.

In one passage - the book's most lyrical by far - Virgil describes the delights of a pear. In another - its most horrific - Beatrice relates the torture inflicted upon her.

Ultimately, though, artful metaphor succumbs to the specifics of the Holocaust, to the drowning of babies, which makes the form rather redundant. And with the experiment failed, the abundant elegance of Martel's prose becomes dulled by the shadow of exploitation.

John Nathan is the JC’s theatre critic

    Last updated: 1:52pm, June 17 2010