For a book that has already gained a great deal of attention for its weighty themes, Yann Martel’s new novel, Beatrice & Virgil, is a quick read, easily finished in two or three sittings. It is built of discrete sections, a number of which include the scenes of a play.
These, written by one of the novel’s two main characters, make use of the epigrammatic language of children’s stories. But Martel’s intentions in this, his third novel, are undoubtedly grand.
Beatrice & Virgil (Knopf Canada) aims to offer a philosophical response to the mistreatment of animals and to the meaning of the Holocaust, while examining the demands of making art about such difficult subjects. Autobiographical links inform key narrative threads, as Martel can be recognized as a model for Harry, the novel’s successful writer who has gone incommunicado to evade his new-found fame.
If not for the Man Booker Prize, which was awarded to Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi, Beatrice & Virgil would not attract great scrutiny. But the Booker catapulted Martel into the literary stratosphere, where follow-up efforts attract multi-million dollar advances and intense critical and popular attention. This latter phenomenon is exaggerated in Canada’s small literary market, where our literary stars are sometimes lavished with a celebrity that swamps their actual effect on the page.
Beatrice & Virgil is foremost a book about animals, as was Life of Pi. Its two central human characters are less sensitively portrayed than the animal creatures on whom Martel’s descriptive power alights. Here, one thinks of another beloved Canadian author, Timothy Findley, whose rural home was a menagerie of sorts, and whose provocative novel, Not Wanted on the Voyage, also linked the abuse of animals and the environment with the Holocaust. This aspect of Findley’s novel gained little attention; rather, it was his burlesquing of traditional religion (Lucifer as a cheeky cross-dresser, God as a desiccated aristocrat) that gained him some surly readerly response.
The Holocaust themes in Beatrice & Virgil are more overt than they are in Findley’s book. Martel’s largely actionless plot ends with a splash of violence – graphic Gestapoesque torture and a cinematic pogrom visited on two mothers and their infants. But for much of the narrative, Martel’s Harry pursues an enigmatic relationship with the proprietor of a taxidermy shop.
This taxidermist is writing a play about a howler monkey and a donkey – the Beatrice and Virgil of the novel’s title – which employs a range of Holocaust motifs. We are meant to uncover them gradually, as does Harry, but the press about all this has preceded the novel, so we know we are reading a book “about the Holocaust” before Martel’s goals become clear.
Gradually, the excerpts from the taxidermist’s play build toward an allegorical response to the Holocaust, which culminates, late in the novel, when Henry acknowledges that he “knew for certain what the taxidermist was doing. . . . he was using the Holocaust to speak of the extermination of animal life. . . . He was seeing the tragic fate of animals through the tragic fate of Jews. The Holocaust as allegory.”
Through much of Beatrice & Virgil it would seem that this is Martel’s goal (certainly it is the main effect of much of the narrative). Yet, by the novel’s end, readers may not be entirely clear on what Martel’s goals have been. The taxidermist turns out to be someone other than Harry took him to be, so the status of his play is up for grabs.
Certainly, the challenge of making a tricky, writerly book about the events of the war, and forcing its readers to look for clues and encounter surprising associations, are among the novel’s motivations. But only readers with a great deal of knowledge about Holocaust history and art will catch the ins and outs of Martel’s coded approach to his subject (the street address where part of Emmanuel Ringelblum’s Warsaw Ghetto archive was unearthed is raised, but the uninitiated will have to do further research to engage with this remarkable historical site).
In fact, it is children’s books about the war that often make use of a similar strategy, in an effort to both reveal and hide aspects of the wartime disaster beneath a palatable surface of word and image. This strategy, in books like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is also found in films such as Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. Book designers at Knopf seem to have picked up on a cover detail employed for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: for Beatrice & Virgil, the iconic stripes of a camp inmate’s uniform are transformed on the hardback’s cloth cover into the curved stripes of an animal’s hide.
It is not clear how readers of Beatrice & Virgil should take the notion that one might better understand the experience of animals, doomed “creatures that could not speak for themselves,” once they are “given the voice of a most articulate people who had been similarly doomed.” Certainly, one of Martel’s accomplishments – not necessarily one he consciously strove for – is a Holocaust-themed book with almost nothing Jewish in it. One strives for an analogy: a baseball game without the ball; or an architectural drawing sketched in plain air.
There is a skilled suppleness, almost a naiveté, in Martel’s tone as he works at making this material weighty and wise. It may be that Beatrice & Virgil arrives at a time when Holocaust-related writing and art is shifting once more, based on a new generational and cultural context. Readers, the press and critics will make use of this literary season to grapple with such issues.
Norman Ravvin’s essays on Jewish literature are collected in A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory. His forthcoming novel, from Gaspereau Press, is The Joyful Child. He is Chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.