Howler Monkeys and the Holocaust: Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil"

on Tuesday, April 13, 2010
For years rumours have been doing the rounds about Yann Martel's "Holocaust book". I remember listening to an interview in which he discussed the difficulty of tackling the subject as a non-Jew. Credibility was always going to be an issue. As was the risk of causing large-scale offence where none was intended. The speculation surrounding the book in the lit world was quite interesting too. Last I heard, though to be fair this must have been around 2005, Martel intended to tackle the subject through allegory, using a monkey and a donkey as his protagonists. It was a proposition that must have had his publishers quaking in their boots, especially following the phenomenal success of his Booker Prize winning mush-fest Life of Pi. They had already scrambled to republish his first, fairly underwhelming novel Self and then quickly followed it with a collection of short stories. But in reality everyone was hanging out for whatever would come next. And there was a lot of hanging. Eight years to be precise. And for what? A bleak, dire Holocaust book about a monkey?

It takes considerably large cojones to alienate the throngs of feel-good nostalgia junkies who have bought first class tickets on your gravy train. Indeed, one could easily be tempted to pin a bravery award on Martel's jacket and send him on his merry way. However, Beatrice and Virgil is not just a brave book but a sublimely successful one. It isn't a Holocaust book in the traditional sense of the term, but rather a meditation on ownership of representations of the Holocaust. Now that most survivors have died it is, not to put too fine a point on it, the most morally complex and crucial question facing anyone who wishes to tackle the topic.

The book starts with the ponderings of Henry, a successful, prize winning author (um... thin veils people, thin veils) who spends five years writing a Holocaust book only to have it rejected by his publishers. So that accounts for five of the eight years, methinks. Henry is pathetically thin-skinned and pretty much gives away writing, opting to take his wife (and, later, kid) to an unnamed city where he can live in relative anonymity. Ever the gracious soul, he continues to answer fan letters from around the world that are sent to him via his publisher. Which is how he happens upon a segment from a strange script sent to him by an even stranger man. The script screams Beckett with its insular absurdity - Virgil and Beatrice discuss the nature of a pear. Also included in the package is a short story by Flaubert and a note from the sender requesting help. As luck (and authorial convenience) would have it, the sender lives in the same city as Henry and so, rather than sending one of his usual missives, Henry trudges off to the address on the envelope. The place is a taxidermy shop (as it should be in any good disturbing horror-esque work), owned by a reclusive, curmudgeonly old man. Beatrice and Virgil, the taxidermist explains, are an ass and howler monkey respectively. They are right there, stuffed, in the shop. The play isn't about anything. But he needs Henry to help him complete it. Why Henry? Well, of course, his big prize-winning book was about animals. He understood them. It is the second time disbelief must be suspended - why on earth would Henry agree to help this nutjob? For whatever reason, he does.

Slowly, the taxidermist reads sections of the play to Henry. It continues on its Godot-like way, but with a menacing undercurrent that Henry is sure hints at the Holocaust. Henry's wife, on the other hand, thinks Henry sees the Holocaust in everything. The topic is holding his entire life up. This time, however, Henry is right. Beatrice and Virgil's epic journey along "a shirt with stripes" is an act of escape. They have witnessed horrors. Or been victims of horrors. Perhaps, even perpetrators. They are trying to find a new language to discuss their experience. Here, Martel enters the realm of deep philosophical meditation. Who is this taxidermist that increasingly relies on Henry to write the play which answers the very question Henry had tried to ask in his rejected novel? Who can tell the story and in what form? Suddenly, a new character is thrust into the midst. It is a dead body. It has been there the whole time. Right under Beatrice and Virgil's noses as they pondered the various absurdities of life. Where did it come from? There is a backstory that the taxidermist hasn't revealed to Henry. Does this make the representation false? Or does it merely force Henry (and the reader) to recast all that has come before in a new light?

The last quarter of the novel takes an unexpectedly brutal turn. Violence, Martel suggests, will win. Or self-negate. Those left behind can only ponder the imponderable. Martel closes the book with twelve moral conundrums. They will force you to doubt yourself, who you are and how you live the story of your life. I'm sure that many of those who loved Life of Pi will give up on Beatrice and Virgil well before they come to the end. It is a great shame. Though terribly self-conscious in the literary sense, this is by far the better book.


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