“My book is about representations of the Holocaust. The event is gone; we are left with stories about it. My book is about a new choice of stories.”
A book that offers readers a new set of stories about one of the most documented, debated, analyzed, and agonized-over events of modern history? Talk about announcing your ambitions in a loud, decisive voice. But that’s just what Henry, the protagonist of Beatrice & Virgil, Yann Martel’s long-awaited follow-up to Life of Pi, does during an early and pivotal scene in the novel, setting the tone and structure of what is to come.
Henry, a famous novelist who has just spent five years writing a follow-up to his massively successful, prize-winning second novel, utters those words, and many more in the same soaring key, at a luncheon with his editors, a bookseller, and a historian. The assembled company are the first readers of Henry’s recently submitted manuscript, which consists of a short novel and an essay on representations of the Holocaust, both to be published, or so Henry hopes, as a “flip book … that is, a book with two sets of distinct pages that are attached to a common spine upside down and back-to-back with each other.” Each of the book’s halves will be given its own distinct cover.
Everyone but Henry hates the idea.
“Essays are a drag,” the bookseller insists, asking what section of the store he should display the book in and where to put a bar code on a book with two front covers. One of the editors is slightly more tactful, asking Henry repeatedly, “What is your book about?”
Despite Henry’s insistence that his novel offers nothing less than a new way of remembering and interpreting the Holocaust, he accepts the editor’s judgment: his book is unpublishable.
Anyone who has read the ubiquitous author profiles coinciding with Beatrice & Virgil’s release will know by now that Martel lived through just such a luncheon after delivering, yes, a flip book comprised of an essay and short novel very much like Henry’s – a flip book that was never published. Martel also reveals that he wrote and abandoned a play about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil, scenes of which he has included in his new novel. If your head is spinning from the layers of metafictional conceits, don’t worry: Martel does an excellent if somewhat pedantic job of setting up Beatrice & Virgil’s fictional and autobiographical strands in the novel’s opening pages.
In the months following his humiliating lunch, Henry occupies himself by learning to play the clarinet, working part-time in a chocolate shop and café, and joining a local theatre troupe. Then one day Henry receives by mail a large envelope containing a photocopied story by Flaubert about a young nobleman who learns to love killing animals, a love that eventually grows into a love for war and bloodshed. The correspondent, also named Henry, has highlighted only the sections that deal with killing animals. He has also included the opening of an original play about a donkey and a howler monkey who speak obsessively about pears and bananas, along with a terse plea for Henry’s help.
Henry is intrigued and eventually tracks down the other Henry, an elderly taxidermist who claims to have been working on the play, entitled A 20th-Century Shirt, for his whole life. In the surreal and gloomy confines of the taxidermy shop, the two Henrys begin a long dialogue about the play, which Henry the novelist soon realizes is an allegory about the Holocaust, with the two animals standing in as victims of Nazi persecution.
Martel obviously wants readers to equate, at least to some degree, Henry the novelist with himself – like Martel, Henry is the son of Canadian diplomats, is married, and has a baby son – so it is hardly a stretch to judge the success of the novel by Henry’s ambitions to portray the Holocaust in a “nonliteral and compact way,” free of the burden of historical realism and not “framed by the same dates, set in the same places.”
Does Beatrice & Virgil accomplish those goals?
Not really. That doesn’t make it a bad book, though. Martel’s prose is never boring, and his authorial voice is as playful, witty, and downright smart as ever. Describing his predilection for including non-human characters in his work, Martel has Henry say: “We are cynical about our own species, but less so about animals, especially wild ones. We might not shelter them from habitat destruction, but we tend to shelter them from excessive irony.” Later, Henry the taxidermist is described as “serious and sober as a microscope.” There are few writers in Canada who can regularly pull off such sharp, musical phrasing. Martel’s description of a fox being skinned and prepped for mounting is a set-piece of surreal power, and much of the dialogue from the play fragments is both disturbingly hypnotic and touching.
Unfortunately, Martel spends too much time setting up readers for the meeting of the two Henrys. The early scenes of Henry’s time as a charming bohemian in search of a book idea are self-indulgent and digressive, and even when the two Henrys set out to finish the play together Martel bogs down the action in the minutiae of taxidermy.
In the end, Beatrice & Virgil fails in its noble goal because it is utterly reliant on the reader’s preconditioned response to the historically documented horrors of the Holocaust. The two animals in the play are making their way across a striped pyjama top, a clothing item readers know was worn by concentration camp prisoners. Readers are familiar with at least a few of the mind-numbing horrors of those camps; if they weren’t, the striped shirt would have no power as a symbol. Beatrice, whom we discover has been brutally tortured by Nazi-like thugs, asks, “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through,” an obvious allusion to Theodor Adorno’s pronouncement that “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Again, the reader is already freighted with historical associations of Auschwitz.
Martel is relying on the very historical gravity and documentation that he wants readers to reimagine. He has also created two animal victims so charming, curious, gentle, and articulate that they function as mere symbols of innocence, which in turn casts their aggressors as incomprehensible sociopaths. This allegorical dichotomy teaches us nothing new about the Holocaust, nor gives us useful tools for deciphering and understanding its complex socio-historic causes.
That said, Beatrice & Virgil shocks readers with its depiction of goodness and decency defiled by brutality. More importantly, it demands that we, like poor Henry the novelist, devise new ways of memorializing history’s countless innocent victims.