Some writers have all the fun. Yann Martel, whose Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize and sold almost two million copies in paperback, has sold the followup for $3 million – the outcome of an auction managed by his Toronto-based agent, which was won by Spiegel & Grau, part of Random House.
The new book, according to Martel, will be an allegory of the Holocaust involving animals. Speaking to the New York Times from Saskatoon, Martel described his treatment of the Holocaust this way: “I was thinking that you don’t have many imaginative takes on it like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and its take on Stalinism.” Citing Roberto Benigni’s film Life Is Beautiful and Art Spiegelman’s Maus as models, Martel pointed to what he sees as a lack of metaphorical treatments of the events of the war. Artists are, he feels, “fearful of letting the imagination loose on the Holocaust.”
A lot can be said about such claims, even without Martel’s as-yet untitled book at hand. In this case, the ephemera of an author’s interview allows us to prepare for what will undoubtedly be a fresh literary juggernaut in the ongoing artistic response to the war. The first thing one can say is there have been influential allegorical “takes” on the Holocaust. They include early and successful responses, such as André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, which does not build its narrative around animals, but uses familiar motifs from folklore and legend and other kinds of phantasmagoric effect.
Unsuccessful allegorical efforts include Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews, whose imaginative response to the Lodz Ghetto’s Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski styles itself after Hollywood slapstick movies, aiming to address the extremity of events with the elastic bodies and comic-book yawping of American popular culture. An even stranger and much more interesting book along these lines is Gordon Lish’s Extravaganza, which is built upon Lish’s version of the bitterly funny vaudeville act of a comic duo known as Smith and Dale. Running darkly behind their patter is an ever-growing awareness of the Holocaust’s bleak outcome.
The foremost allegorical Holocaust novel is Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939, which appeared in English translation in 1980. A slim Kafkaesque parable, Badenheim presents a moment in time in a prewar central European spa town, and makes no mention of the oncoming war or the burden of Europe’s Nazification, although it continuously points toward our knowledge of these things. It is true that Appelfeld’s book is nearly unique in the Holocaust canon, yet it sits atop it, reflecting readers’ (and writers’) willingness to understand the events of the war by way of extended allegory or fable.
Martel’s reference to the Maus books suggests either his own light reading of Spiegelman or a quality of ambiguity in Maus that begs misinterpretation. One doesn’t think of Spiegelman’s masterpiece as an allegorical text. Its use of mice, cats, pigs and other well-chosen animal faces for different nationalities is so ironic in its application that the effect is one of masterly caricature that constantly points to its own artifice. A remarkable example of this appears in a scene set in wartime Sosnowiecz, where, to masquerade as a non-Jew, the author’s father ties a pig mask over his mouse face (what can this possibly mean, the reader wonders; what has changed in Vladek Spiegelman’s demeanour to effect the charade?)
One must acknowledge, too, the graphic honesty of Spiegelman’s portrayal of “mouse” corpses, piled as they were at the end of the war at Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. Quite unlike anything allegorical, and more direct than much literary and filmic representation of the war, these images are reminiscent of the atrocity story captured in newsreel footage of the camps. It’s difficult to know what Martel could mean by social realist Holocaust art, but there is no question about the weight of historical detail in Maus.
Another source of allegory dealing with the Holocaust is a growing field of writing for children about the war. In this work such motifs as stars, trains, lost children and camps whose chimneys smoke darkly, day and night, are treated as suggestive objects that teach moral lessons to five- or eight-year-olds without showing them the actuality of German atrocity.
This latter feature – Holocaust history presented without violence – came up often in the reception of Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. Although my experience is anecdotal, I was often told by the film’s viewers that they found it satisfying to see a film about the war “without the awfulness and violence.” Regardless of what one felt about Benigni’s film, there is, at least, the responsibility to consider the effect of such audience response.
What is the point of the kind of counterarguments offered above? In part they are cautionary. Sweeping claims that don’t accurately reflect the state of the arts are inherently self-serving. They aid Martel in preparing the ground for his own effort, which should prove itself on its own literary terms; they reorder the landscape and assert a need for certain kinds of books that may not be as pressing as Martel says it is; they strive to reshuffle the canon – to place certain books at the peak and forget others. The average reader won’t care about such things, but a careful reader of novels about the war should.
It may be less than fun to refuse a ticket aboard the yahoo express being prepared by Random House for the release of Martel’s novel. Its supporters are already proclaiming its readiness to “become part of the canon of books about the Holocaust” that will “sell over time.” The former issue – what gets into the canon – ought to be largely an audience-based decision. The latter hope – for sales eternal – reflects a publisher’s pursuit of a title that will be reprinted in many languages over decades. Martel is not responsible for the way he is promoted, but his remarks from summery Saskatoon – offered unguardedly when the Times came calling – reflect a lack of regard for the writerly effort, both great and failed, that came before him.