Diderot Derivative

A novel (?) poses puzzles to convey the angst of the Holocaust.

Few Canadian novels have generated such diverse initial reaction as Yann Martel’s third, Beatrice and Virgil. From Pasha Malla’s fawning review in The Globe and Mail (“as the Holocaust has forever recast our understanding of humanity and historiography, so might Beatrice & Virgil”) to the damning condemnation of Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times (“a botched and at times cringe-making fable,” “disappointing  and often perverse” and worse: “misconceived and offensive”).

Clearly no one knows what to think. The annoying thing about such heated responses is their moral tone: on the one hand, overweening praise for the author’s courage to tackle such a sensitive subject; on the other, self-righteous indignation for the same reason. In part such divergent and heartfelt reactions seem natural given the extraordinary anticipation for the follow-up to Martel’s previous work, the critically acclaimed, global sales phenomenon Life of Pi. The always present danger of high expectations typically colours critical and reader reaction and, unfortunately, authorial anxiety. Given that Martel dared broach such a touchy subject, it seems he was inviting disaster—although had he played it safe with an intentionally non-­controversial book, we might have been more disappointed. Bravery in public is praiseworthy in itself.

I can’t help wondering what readers more directly affected by the Holocaust will make of this book. It does no good for critics to be offended or pleased on behalf of someone else; that cannot fail to colour their opinion. The question is, does Martel’s choice of subject allow him as a writer—as an artist—the freedom to create, or does it restrict him to tiptoeing around cultural sensitivities and force him to privilege history over narrative?

That is the question the narrator consciously wrestles with in Beatrice and Virgil: how to address the enormity of the Holocaust in the language of fiction (something the author appears to think has never been done). Nevertheless, Martel actually manages a completely credible success with Beatrice and Virgil. Despite the enormous confusion over what his aims are and whether he has met them, the novel clearly describes our difficulty with the subject, one so emotionally overpowering that knowing about it transcends our ability to understand it. Nowhere is this more effectively demonstrated than in the book’s final pages, where Martel lists a number of “Games for Gustav” (a minor character). These short riddles or puzzles posit individual, micro incidents from the Holocaust as moral decisions of the Sophie’s Choice variety. By deflecting our attention away from the enormity of the numbers and the collective horrors, onto these individual, brief and harrowing details, Martel allows the point to hammer itself home. These “games” are moral choices we simply cannot rationally make. The situations themselves transcend that possibility. Our previous attempts to classify and qualify the Holocaust, by rationalizing it in larger contexts, simply undermine the impact of the actual experience.

These games also transcend the fictive elements of the novel—which Martel is all too aware of. Hence, as in his earlier works, autobiography creeps in, overt reference is made to previous literary models, stories devolve into further stories, whole pages of didactic prose are delivered, and, in general, the division between fiction and nonfiction is exploded. Although we typically see these characteristics as post-modern, they are also hallmarks of the Enlightenment, and in this regard Beatrice and Virgil calls to my mind no one more than the Denis Diderot of such playful narrative puzzles as Jacques the Fatalist or This Is Not a Story (whereas Life of Pi seems more of a conte philosophique à la Voltaire).

There are two Henrys in the novel: the narrator, who is a novelist, and the taxidermist, who is a playwright. Aside from their name, the two have other things in common: both have attempted to imagine a response to the Holocaust and failed. Together, though, they manage more progress. Our narrator is limited by his distance from the victims he wishes to speak about (if not for); but the taxidermist is limited by his proximity. If, as is suggested, the taxidermist is indeed one of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, then he is one of the few represented in literature without the implicit condemnation of author and reader. Like everything in this novel, he is presented as plainly as possible. Out of this comes a portrait of a man numbed to existence, struggling to find his way back without denying his past, with the same hollow gaze and indifference to his surroundings that can be observed, in fact, in camp survivors. It is perhaps this which offended New York Times reviewer Kakutani, although she does not specifically say.

The incidents in this novel, unlike so much purported literary work, resist the author’s impulse to manage, constrain, explain and even understand them. First, Henry the novelist works for years on a pair of narratives, one fiction, one not, attempting both a metaphorical and an intellectual approach. He separates these major modes of understanding and appeals to them individually, all the while intending that they be bound back to back as one book. This project is rejected by his publishers and editors, not because it is a failure, but because it is impossible for them to fit into their business model. Then, Henry the taxidermist sends the author a copy of Flaubert’s The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator, the story of a man who enthusiastically slaughters animals by the thousands over the course of years and yet ends up in Heaven. Finally, in the taxidermist’s unfinished play, the animals Beatrice and Virgil understand they should move on, but they remain. Similarly, in the final “Games for Gustav,” modelled on actual Holocaust circumstances, the only possible actions are profoundly inhuman. Action, movement, becomes unbearable: the world closes down on possibilities.

None of these situations have sensible outcomes; yet they have the weight of reality. All this is why novelist Henry cannot find a successful way to represent the Holocaust within the “truth” of art: art is less than reality. It is bound by convention and expectation, not least of which is that it speak some form of truth, which is always taken to be a right answer, a redemptive meaning tweaked even from absurdity.

Several factors cloud our initial reception of this novel. The anticipation following the success of Life of Pi would be the largest, except for the daring and ambition of the book’s subject. Others are Martel’s strenuously simple style, his penchant for the fabulous (which always confounds those blinkered by literalism, materialism, naturalism—exactly the subject of Life of Pi) and for playing with the tools and methods of fiction. Given this, I expect the definitive verdict on his success or failure, and on the importance of this book, to lie at least a decade ahead of us.

On the surface, one of the flaws of the novel as entertainment is that we do not understand why the narrator is obsessed with the Holocaust in the first place. Others include a lengthy, didactic and slow build-up to the story, extraneous personal detail, the occasional over-explanation of things not in the least obscure, and a quick, melodramatic resolution. In other words, readers hoping for another performance like Life of Pi will be disappointed. However, the privileging of the matter of the story over its performance will entice those looking to engage with difficult ideas outside of easily accepted, received moral and literary modes. Needless to say, not your average reader, and not likely the average fan of Pi.

But very much the reader who might at the time have read Jacques the Fatalist, Rameau’s Nephew or This Is Not a Story.