The end of Yann Martel’s extraordinary new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, is shocking and moving and will, as great philosophical novels should, launch a thousand questions. One of those questions will surely be: How does this book—which features a writer named Henry whose particulars seem similar to Martel’s own, a cheerless taxidermist who seeks Henry’s literary advice, and bits and pieces of the taxidermist’s play about a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil—have anything to do with the Holocaust? The novel contains none of the iconic events and images we associate with that evil, the word itself is rarely uttered in the book . . . and yet.
In the first novel since his phenomenal bestseller, Martel once again uses an animal story to make profound points about humanity.
“I have always been interested in the Holocaust,” Martel says during a call to his hotel room in Toronto. Martel and his partner, novelist Alice Kuipers, and their seven-month-old son Theo (who coos occasionally in the background) are visiting with family while en route from their home in Saskatoon to a literary festival in Dubai.
In conversation, Martel speaks rapidly, unspooling long, eloquent skeins of thought. He praises “the undervalued, underappreciated, stunning landscapes of the prairies,” and the “very strong sense of community in small, isolated places” like Saskatoon, before returning to the origins of his new novel.
“I lived in France as a child for a few years. My parents were diplomats. And the Second World War, which for North Americans is a foreign tragedy, a foreign adventure, is for Europeans right on their doorstep. The scars of the war are vivid. I remember being taught about the Second World War and about the Holocaust, and it just stuck out, the Holocaust did. Wars are a thrill to a child’s imagination. Going to war makes a kind of sense: You hate someone, you go to war with them. But to my child’s mind—and even to an adult’s mind—there seemed to be no logic to the Holocaust. It stayed in my mind as a little kernel and I just kept coming back to it, reading books on it and seeing the movies. It just stayed with me. And I finally decided to write on it.”
Martel was living in Berlin, beginning to work on the new book, when his third book, Life of Pi, won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2002 and “went planetary,” selling seven million copies worldwide. “So I toured for two years,” Martel says, “and I loved it. Before that I was an impoverished writer who had never gone on a tour or anything. I stopped writing and just enjoyed it.”
Returning to the book he’d been working on, Martel struggled. “I was an outsider. I was not a victim. I was not a victimizer. I have no family connection whatsoever, so I wondered, how could I write about it? Also, there’s something very story-killing about the Holocaust, which is why it is so dominated by the nonfictional mode. Finally my entry point was animals. Using animals again allowed me to tiptoe up to a subject without being obvious,” Martel says.
“What I like about writing about animals is that very few writers of adult fiction use animals. Animals have been confined to children’s fiction, which is a mistake because there’s so much more that can be done with animals than just telling children’s stories.”
In fact, this being an odd, vivid, layered, multifaceted gem of a novel, it is possible to read Beatrice and Virgil as a book about environmentalism and animal rights, the interpretative slant that the taxidermist-playwright himself seems to prefer. Or as a story about human responsibility and human culpability. Or as a story about the uses and misuses of storytelling. Or as a story about writer’s block and the creative enterprise. But however one chooses to read it, it is a testament to Martel’s great faith in and commitment to the art of fiction.
“Great art works because it tells an emotional truth,” Martel says. “I suppose great histories could be both factually and emotionally true, but history is very cumbersome. What’s wonderful about art is that it gets at the emotional essence of things and it plays around with the facts. There’s a danger to that; you can manipulate things and you can peddle gross lies. It can be a dangerous tool, but also a very powerful one [which] if well used can deliver more than a history can. A work of art is the beginning of a discussion. It’s part of a dialogue. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to say, ‘Listen, this is what I’m saying; what do you think?’”
Martel’s artful new novel Beatrice and Virgil is sure to make readers think—and to make them demand from other readers: What do you think?
Read a review of Beatrice and Virgil.