Illustration by Elling Lien
Beatrice & Virgil
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010
“Writers seldom become public figures,” Yann Martel writes in the opening pages of Beatrice & Virgil, his first novel since the Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi. Between the wild, international success of Pi, his much-publicized role as Stephen Harper’s English tutor (see www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca), and the media fervour around this newest novel, it’s clear that Martel has made himself an exception to this general rule.
Part of the reason Beatrice & Virgil has generated so much media interest is that it purports to be about one of the most horrifying events in recent history, the systematic murder of some six million Jews during the Second World War. Strange, then, that Martel’s book about the Holocaust should turn out to be not at all about the Holocaust—or, at least, not directly.
Beatrice & Virgil is the kind of postmodern tale whose plot sounds almost parodic in summary. Henry, a writer, has seen the publication of two successful novels. His third book, however, a gimmicky treatment of the Holocaust that involves the co-publication of a piece of fiction and a piece of non-fiction, has recently been rejected by his publishers and editors as commercially suicidal. Stunned and reeling from this unanticipated slight, Henry and his wife relocate to an unnamed metropolis, “one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself.”
There, Henry eventually makes the acquaintance of a taxidermist (also named Henry) who is at work on a play about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil, the taxidermied bodies of which he keeps in his shop. Henry begins helping the reticent taxidermist with his script, and much of Beatrice & Virgil unfolds in the form of that stage play. Its setting and its execution owes much to Waiting for Godot—a fact acknowledged by Martel’s sparing use of stage directions and dialogue adapted from Beckett’s existentialist masterpiece.
The initial scene between the two unlikely protagonists is clever, wryly humorous, and proceeds with the bantering back and forth-ness of a Socratic dialogue. Virgil is trying to describe a pear to Beatrice, who has never encountered one:
VIRGIL: …You must imagine an apple that is at its widest in the bottom third.
BEATRICE: I can see it.
VIRGIL: But we must not push the comparison too far. The bottom of a pear is not like an apple’s.
VIRGIL: No. Most apples sit on their buttocks, so to speak…
Soon, though, it becomes clear that their situation is not as light-hearted as this initial discussion of produce would suggest. The two have experienced an event they refer to as “the Horrors,” are greatly disturbed by it, and are still living under its threat.
Beatrice and Virgil’s central struggle is in finding a language with which they can talk about the Horrors. It’s a monumental task. How does one speak about the unspeakable? How can language describe inconceivable suffering? “Virgil has this idea for short plays where every word…would be qualified by sic,” Martel’s taxidermist says at one point, “because every word, in the light of the Horrors, is now erroneous.”
Fundamentally, this is a story about language’s failure to adequately represent experience. The pear exchange between B & V illustrates the difficulty in describing a common object to one who is unfamiliar with it. How much more difficult, then, to explain the abstract: love, say; hate. In a sense, the Holocaust itself (the macabre details, the catalogue of horrors) is secondary to Martel’s intent. As such, its true impact, the very gruesome reality of all those who died at the hands of the Third Reich, is never represented.
Or almost never. The final section of the book, “Games for Gustav,” comprises a series of short hypothetical situations that speak to the experiences of Europe’s murdered Jews. They are meant as moral contemplations for the reader. The most affecting of these reads: “Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter’s head?”
These “games,” concise in form and limited in number as they may be, do what much of Martel’s novel cannot: make us feel, on a deeply human level, what it is to look around and see only death. The rest of Martel’s book is fascinating and extremely well written, but in its coy use of inter-textual references and of signature metafictional tricks, curiously empty of emotion. In a way, its account of aftermath is no less clinical than the cold statistics history has given us, and which fiction should ideally attempt to render more human. Beatrice & Virgil is a successful novel, but a failed work of art.