Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

What is Yann Martel Thinking?

A fictional, self-consciously intellectual Beckett-like conversation that tries to express the inexpressible on Yann Martel's confounding new novel.

Laureen: Have you read Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel?
Stephen: I’m tired.
Laureen: Did he send it to you?
Stephen: Are you kidding? (Heavy Pause.)

Laureen: So, where did you hide it?
Stephen: Kandahar.
Laureen: I know you read it. You read it, right? What’s it about?
Stephen: Inonelongword: Idonothavethefaintestidea. Why don’t you ask Barack; he read the last one.
Laureen: OK, I will. (Dials.) Hello Barack. Sorry to disturb you this late.

Barack: Laureen? (Whispering.) I told you to text me.
Laureen: (Ignoring him.) It’s important, Barack.
Barack: (After a pause.) How is the big man, homie Steve?
Laureen: Stephen is Stephen, the same as always, always.
Barack: Huh?
Laureen: Question: have you read Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel?
Barack: I’m reading it now—I mean, right now!—to my kids.
Laureen: You are?
Barack: Sure.
Laureen: Wait a minute, Steve wants to say something… he’s tugging the phone away from me.
Stephen: (Anxiously, sounding a little paranoid) Barack, did he send it to you?
Barack: Are you kidding?
Stephen: I knew it. So, what do you think, so far?
Barack: The truth is, I reserve my judgment until I reach the end. But there are a lot of things to like already. My kids like the monkey and the donkey. I like especially how fame is described by the successful writer character, in contrast to the small comforts of strangers:  “As for fame, fame felt like nothing. Fame was not a sensation like love or hunger or loneliness, welling from within and invisible from to the outside eye.”

Stephen: Fame, eh?

Barack: And then the writer character says something else about fame, which my daughter liked: “It (fame) was rather entirely external, coming from the minds of others…being famous was no different from being gay, or Jewish, or from a visible minority: you are who you are, and then people project onto you some notion they have.” 

Stephen: He said that, eh. Is that good or bad?

Barack: Listen, it’s bedtime. Catch you in a bit. Why don’t you call George? Laura is a librarian. I’m sure they’ve read it.
Stephen: Good idea, thanks! (Dials.) George?
George: Steve?
Steve: George, have you by any chance read Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel?
George: Yes, I have.
Stephen: Really? Did he send it to you?
George: Are you kidding?
Stephen: Damn.

George: Signed copy. First edition.

Stephen: So what did you think?
George: I found it hard to think.
Stephen: (Confused.) How so?
George: You know. Stillness. I couldn’t find the stillness.

Stephen: Why not?

George: All the darn noise! The hubbub and hype, leading up to its release, before, during, and after—rumours, leaks, industry noises about a holocaust flip book—tweets about the advance, not to mention the high-pitched whine of critical knifes being sharpened…and now the live chatting!

Stephen: Ergo, no moments of stillness.

George: Yes, and all of it for a book without any vampires in it! That’s what really gets me. No vampires, only a monkey and a donkey.
Stephen: I’m surprised, George. You really followed the release closely.
George: Yes, I did, and it felt like I’d read it before I’d read it, you know?
Stephen: Let me see if I understand. For you it was difficult to read because of the publishing industry-media complex is in some kind of tremendous overdrive?
George:  In overdrive in extremis! Yes! Shock and Awe! I’m surprised his publishers haven’t rented one of our aircraft carriers and put him on it with a tiger, donkey, and monkey, and a banner overhead, saying Never Again, or something.
Stephen: Sure. But what is it about?
George: There is this creepy taxidermist character who hides in his cave-of-a-shop and kind of reminds me of Obama bin Biden.
Stephen: Who?
George: Oh, forget it.
George: No tell me, what is it about?
George: In onelongword?
Stephen: Go ahead

George: Ifihadtoguesssomethingfreudianaboutthecreativeprocessversusmarketrealitiesasseen throughaglassdarkly.

Stephen: Deep. Okay thanks, George.
George: Say, Steve, why don’t you call Tony? He’s feeling out of the loop these days.

Stephen: That’s a good idea. Bye. (Dials.) Tony?
Tony: Stephen, it’s the middle of the night and I have this quartet gig early tomorrow. It better be important
Stephen: One question. Have you read Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel?
Tony: Yeah. Have done. All sorted.
Stephen: Bliar!
Tony: Truth is you might be right. Ring Gordon, he’s your man.
Stephen: Tell me, did Martel at least send it to you?
Tony: Are you kidding?
Stephen: You might donate your copy to the Stephen Harper Kandahar Lending Library. I’ll ring Gordon after speaking with Vlad and Angela. (Hangs up. Dials.)
Vladimir: Zdravstvuj Stepan.
Stephen: How did you know…?
Vladimir: Call display.
Stephen: Security, eh.
Vladimir: What is the intent of your call, Stepan?
Stephen: Have you read Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel?
Vladimir: Nyet.
Stephen: Not yet?
Vladimir: Nyet.
Stephen: Tell me though, did he send it to you?
Vladimir: Are you kidding?
Stephen: I know.
Vladimir (whispers): Postmodernpapertiger.
Stephen: What did you say?

Vladimir: Nihilum.

Stephen: Dust your uncle Vanya. I’ve got other calls to make. (Dials.)
Silvio: Ciao Steve.
Stephen: Have you read Beatrice & Virgil?
Silvio: Beatrice? No. Never. I swear it. Who said I did?
Stephen: Beatrice & Virgil by—
Silvio:  Aha, I understand now. Two at one time? We call that Paridiso. You want to try it? I can arrange everything.
Stephen: No Paradiso in clean Ontario.

Laureen: What are talking about, Stephen?

Stephen (Ignoring last action by speaker of the house): The novel called Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel. Did he send it to you?
Silvio: You’re kidding. Ciao Steven, I have urgent business.
Stephen (Talking to himself while dialing.) Two more calls, then I’m going to run downstairs and eat myself a pear.

Angela: Guten Abend.
Stephen: Chancellor, have you heard of Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel?
Angela: I first heard about this obscene six million advance in the middle of last year.
Stephen: Three million.
Angela: Yes, that is what I said.
Stephen: Did he send it you?
Angela: Are you kidding? I don’t need money. The essential question is not whether poetry is possible after Auschwitz—
Stephen: Adorno!
Angela: But whether or not human creativity is possible when you’re holding a Booker Prize, in one hand, and a three million advance, in the other.

Stephen: You were saying.

Angela: Three million must have felt like a bounty on Martel’s head, not a reward.
Stephen: This is a peaceful country. I, for one, never placed a bounty on his head.
Angela: I’m not saying. We Germans have a peaceful country also.
Stephen: Apart from your little theory, what do you think the book is about?
Angela: “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.”
Stephen: I asked, what do you think it is about. Can you give me onelongword?
Angela: We Germans have many extremely long compounds, or, as you say, onelong words. We are the champions of…
Stephen: I’ll call back. (Hangs up swiftly. Dials.)
Gordon: Before you even open your box, Steve—Tony sent me a text. I know what this is about. Yes, your man Martel sent it to me, and yes, I read it.
Stephen: And so?

Gordon: Here is a fact. Malcolm McClaren, son of a Scotsman, godfather of punk, dies the same week Beatrice & Virgil is released.
Stephen: The Sex Pistols, eh. Huge in my cabinet.

Gordon: I did not know that.
Stephen: But Gordo, what is the real connection between Beatrice & Virgil and Malcolm McClaren?
Gordon: As the ex-Exchequer with a PhD in History…
Stephen: Never mind the bollocks, Gordo, onelongword.

Gordon: Itisbettertobeaflamboyantfailurethananykindofbenignsuccess.
Stephen: I see. What is an ‘Exchequer’ anyway?
Gordon: The derivation is medieval, like my face.
Stephen: You should check out taxidermy, I had my whole person done last year.
Gordon: Goodnight, Stephen.
Stephen: Goodnight, Gordo (Hangs up.) Wow. Now I get what Question Period is for: to seek information!

Laureen: What did they say? What’s it about?

Stephen:Idonothavethefaintestideaifihadtoguesssomethingfreudianaboutthecreative processversusmarketrealitiesasseenthroughaglassdarklypostmodernpapertigeritisbetter tobeaflamboyantfailurethananykindofbenignsuccess.

Laureen: What does it all mean?
Stephen: This government should do more to support the arts in Canada.

Andrew Steinmetz (aka Einar Stone) is a self-hating postmodernist who lives in Ottawa.

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