Monday, March 15, 2010

Holocaust in a suitcase

Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel
by Yann Martel

Coming in to this slight novel--barely more than a novella--all I knew was that it was Yann Martel's "Holocaust allegory," and that it had animal characters. Those animals are the eponymous Beatrice (a donkey) and Virgil (a howler monkey) but they're actually characters in a play within the novel. Let me back up...

The central character of Beatrice and Virgil is a novelist named Henry. Henry has written a very successful book that featured animals as characters. Henry's career, in short, is remarkably similar to that of Yann Martel. The beginning of the novel describes his travails while attempting to publish a follow up to his very successful book. Henry, who is not Jewish, wants to write about the Holocaust. He has noticed that almost all Holocaust fiction is in the style of historical realism. Henry believes there are other ways to have this dialogue, to tell this story. "Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists. To take just three well-known instances of artful witness: Orwell with Animal Farm, Camus with The Plague, Picasso with Guernica. In each case, the artist had taken a vast, sprawling tragedy, had found its heart and had represented it in a non-literal and compact way. The unwieldy encumbrance of history was packed into a suitcase. Art as suitcase, light, portable and essential--was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe's Jews?"

It is this that Henry attempts, but fails, to write. Despite his exalted stature, he is told repeatedly that his book is unpublishable. At this point, sick of publishing and completely blocked, Henry decides to pursue other interests. He and his wife move to an unnamed major city in another county. He takes music lessons, acts in plays, and even waits on customers in a chocolateria. He's happy. And it's a pleasure to read about Henry. Sure, he's rich, talented, and free, but at heart he's an everyman and so darn likable.

Eventually, a series of events leads Henry to an acquaintance with a taxidermist, also coincidentally (?) named Henry. In most ways Henry the taxidermist is completely unlike Henry the novelist. He's older, dour, and very, very serious. But he, too, is a frustrated writer. He has been struggling for years on a play about Beatrice and Virgil. The characters are real in his mind, as they are literally two stuffed animals in his shop. Gradually Henry the novelist begins collaborating on the play, and sections of the the play's text make up large portions of the novel. And the text is... well, I swear it sounds like Beckett wrote it. Beatrice and Virgil may as well have been renamed Vladimir and Estragon. Truly, if you have any appreciation of that sort of thing, it's an absolute joy to read.

And that's the thing: This light, short novel is a compelling and deceptively simple read. Other than novelist Henry's unpublished work, there's no further talk of the Holocaust until more than halfway through the novel. There's something going on a bit under the surface, but you can't really put your finger on it. And then novelist Henry says to his wife, "It's all quite fanciful, yet there are elements that remind me, well, that remind me of the Holocaust." She accuses him of seeing the Holocaust everywhere, and that's that. Mr. Martel's fanciful story of the novelist and the taxidermist and the donkey and the monkey continues. And slowly, gently, the real story being told becomes more and move self-evident. By the time I reached the end, I was well and truly chilled, with goosebumps breaking out all over.

Where the fictional Henry failed, Yann Martel has succeeded. It's a stealth allegory, and as I stated earlier, it's deceptively simple. Deceptive, because there's actually so much going on in this little novel. There are cultural, literary, historic, and religious references. I was actually busy googling things as I read and there was much food for thought. It seems almost ridiculous to say this about another Yann Martel novel, but you want to read this with a friend or a book group. By the time you're done, there is so much you'll want to talk through and discuss. Highly, highly, highly recommended!


  1. As the author of a Holocaust novel ("Jacob's Courage"), I appreciate books that offer a frank, emotional examination of morality. Repugnance, despair and darkness exist within human nature. We therefore learn nothing about ourselves if we do not examine this part of our psyche. During the twelve years of the Shoah, Jewish prisoners of Nazi Germany met, fell in love, became parents, watched their loved ones disappear and fought a desperate battle to remain alive. They were victims of incomprehensible brutality. Such books explore the complex relationships between humans during the worst genocide in recorded history.

    The world is seldom seen in black and white- even during the Holocaust. In the midst of anguish, beauty exists. Within beauty, despair dwells. Life is experienced as layer upon layer of sensory input, interpreted by our moral compass and defined though our laboring conscience.

    In this age of realism, readers demand multifaceted, often chaotic individuals who possess characteristics both good and bad. They are correct, in that this is the way life is. If novelists wish to emulate reality, then our characters should become complex humans, with flaws, faults, imperfections and limitations. Some of our villains should possess mercy and empathy, as well. And, no emotion influences us more than guilt. In “Jacob’s Courage,” my characters were constantly aggravated by guilt. We are forever tortured by our past and guilt is the primary motivator in decisions about our future. We can ignore it or learn from it, but we can never escape from it. Holocaust victims were faced with the most perfidious forces; deceit, brutality, cruelty, sickness, starvation and the death of loved-ones were the daily companions of concentration camp prisoners. The victims felt guilt for surviving while their loved ones had been murdered. Each of them must have wondered why they deserved to live when those that they worshipped were condemned to death.

    Novels about this time are by causality dark and precarious. Yet, in the midst of this despair, there was life, love, passion, religious fervor and the excitement known only to children. Even in such hopeless desolation, there was faith, infatuation, romance, excitement and longing for all of the things that humans crave. Holocaust characters must therefore embellish the widest range of human attributes and feelings. Such was the complex state of living in a Nazi death camp.

    The Holocaust cannot be described without inflicting horror upon the reader. Such books are not for the faint of heart. The human spirit strives for autonomy and freedom. Yet, in any search for an understanding of human nature, one must descend into the depths of depravity and terror. We cannot appreciate humankind without comprehending its wicked flaws. Deep within the darkest recesses of brutal genocide, the reader will discover a faint flicker of light representing love, passion, desire, hope, faith and reverence. Here is the essence of "Jacob's Courage" - an examination of morality, love and righteousness, in the midst of the dark whirlwind of malevolence.

    Charles S. Weinblatt
    Author, Jacob’s Courage

  2. Charles,

    You speak very elequently about a subject you're obviously passionate about. I gather your novel falls into the historical realism camp that Martel points out is most prevalent.

    Mr. Martel has taken a very, very different approach in telling his story. Clearly I found it to be powerful and effective. I would be very curious to hear your thoughts if you read it, Charles.

  3. Hey Susan - Old HS friend here, Mary L gave ne your blog info so stopping by to check in. If you ever get out to DC/MD/VA definitely drop me a line so we can meet up. And feel free to stop by my blog and graffiti it up too ;-).