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Interview With Yann Martel

Interview With Yann Martel

The Life of Pi author of discusses the controversial depiction of the Holocaust in his new novel, Beatrice & Virgil.

Nearly a decade after the worldwide success of Life of Pi, which won both the the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize, Yann Martel has finally published his much-awaited follow-up, Beatrice & Virgil. The book has been awarded a mixed basket of reviews, from damning criticism for Martel’s treatment of the Holocaust to applause for its unique exploration of the subject.

Beatrice & Virgil is narrated by the transparently autobiographical Henry, an author whose own Holocaust novel was rejected by publishers. (Martel originally conceived Beatrice & Virgil as a flipbook, with one half the novel and the other a companion essay.) Henry moves to an unidentified city to work through his writer’s block, where he meets a misanthropic taxidermist who seeks Henry’s help in finishing his own play, A 20th-Century Shirt. The bizarre play stars Beatrice and Virgil—a donkey and a monkey named after Dante’s guides in the Divine Comedy—who engage in a series of philosophical conversations surrounding the Holocaust-esque “Horrors.”

Amid a busy schedule of traveling and promotion, Yann Martel spoke on the phone about the difficulties of representing the Holocaust.

Caitlin Manicom: Place is incredibly important in Beatrice & Virgil. I read the setting of the novel in an unidentified town as universalizing, and the play’s location on a striped t-shirt as a reminder of very personal traumas. Then I read an interview in which you said that it is important for the reader to think: “there’s someone in my town who participated in horror and I don’t even know that,” which I saw as fear mongering.

Yann Martel: That’s not fear mongering. I said that in relation to the Holocaust. We tend to over-historicize; we think, “oh, those Germans” again and again, but what led to the Holocaust is very much a universal phenomenon. It stemmed out of disrespect and hate, which are present everywhere. Although the circumstances of the Holocaust were unique, people who dislike certain groups—homosexuals, blacks, immigrants in the UK—people who have chips on their soldiers, those people are still around. If I located Beatrice & Virgil somewhere specific like New York or Paris or Berlin, I risked the reader distancing themselves.

CM: Why couldn’t A 20th-Century Shirt exist as a stand-alone play? You set up an introduction explaining the importance of constructing different, fictional narratives surrounding the Holocaust, but do you feel that this introduction negates the possibility of constructing a wholly unique narrative?

YM: Part of that was technical ploy, part of it has to do with the nature of genocide. Henry the taxidermist says, “My story has no story. It rests on the fact of murder.” The problem with genocide is that while most narratives, even the most post-modern, have continuity, genocide has no continuity. Whatever a Jewish person might have been doing in Germany—whether they were a student or a merchant—three months, one month, two weeks or one day before they were caught is irrelevant. Their personal narrative is anecdotal until they’re caught in that web. Then it is monstrous. Afterwards, when they make their way back home or, say, to Israel, then you have a narrative. The allegory and the play didn’t work on their own—they were kind of irrelevant and banal.

And the fragments of play are banal. It’s just chatting, like people on trains talking and passing the time. When Nazis were starting to sniff around, what could people do? They had to find meaningfulness in inconsequential actions. So the play is essentially a waiting narrative. It is like Waiting for Godot, but Waiting for Godot is far more benign. You’re waiting for the Holocaust, then you’re no longer waiting, and the end of the wait might mean that you’re dead. This is a story about writing that story.

CM: In the story that surrounds the play, you address a fictionalized editorial argument that an essay would coddle the reader in some way—tell them exactly how to read the novel. But does the interjection of the narrator’s voice not do just that? Do you feel that you were unable to get away from the need to justify your reasons for talking about the Holocaust?

YM: Part of that narration is extracts from the essay. I don’t think I felt a need to justify but to explain. In all my research—and I’m not a Holocaust scholar, my life moves on, I have other stories I want to tell—very few people were actually discussing the necessity of varied manifestations and representations. The memories of survivors have a searing authenticity that leaves one unable to question, even if they are sensationalized behind Spielberg’s camera. Historians are sometimes polemical. They produce a positing of explanations that borders on what fiction does. There is very little discussion about whether or not we should create Holocaust comedy, Holocaust westerns, or South Pacific musicals.

CM: Let’s talk more about the essay. Can you give me an example of how it reads? Does it disappoint you to have to have it published separately or is that something you’ve come to terms with?

YM: Initially I resisted, but I’ve come around. I see their point: the flipbook would have been an intellectual thing entirely; it would have squeezed out the art and the emotion. The popular approach to the Holocaust tends to be extremely emoting. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, although I do think we need to stop emoting and start thinking. Of course, I understand the emotion—one-quarter of the victims were children!

I needed to allow the novel to have its own life; the essay will only be of interest to certain readers who want to think about questions of representation. The essay is disjointed. It covers a series of thoughts. I don’t remember the exact title but it is called something like “Notes, Comments and Observations on the Extermination of European Jews.”

I talk about humour and the Holocaust, and question why the word “trivialization” always appears. The New York Times review calls my work trivializing. Yet you never hear a veterans group complaining about a movie trivializing war, or a women’s group complaining about the trivialization of rape in the way that word is applied to the rape of oceans and forests. Why, when we fall afoul of some authority in talking about the Holocaust, is it called trivializing?

I also question whether the name Holocaust is appropriate. It’s already a metaphor and so turns the events into a metaphor. It originally refers to the innocuous sacrifice of animals that are burnt. This metaphorically puts Nazis in the position of making a sacrifice of the Jews to some godly figure. I ask whether we can have an easy name for genocide in the way we have one for war. We have such glib names for war—World War I, World War II. They are simply numbered off.

It also deals with the problems of art and storytelling in mourning victims of mass murder. In contrast, inciting genocide far more lends itself to storytelling, which is why Jew hatred still exists. It’s a galvanizing story—someone whispers in your ear that there is this terrible group, they’re powerful, and they’re small. That’s why Mein Kampf still sells all over Asia: it’s a good piece of propaganda! While Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl has you looking backwards, Mein Kampf has you looking forwards. It has all the arms of a story. The enemy can be al-Qaeda or the PLO or whoever.

CM: Speaking of naming, why have both the narrator and the taxidermist named Henry? Is this a suggestion of some contrast between “good” and “evil”?

YM: I wanted universality, and to suggest that this issue is closer to home than you might think. You know, the last time I went to Auschwitz, I spent over two weeks there. When you’re there for long time it seems a pleasant little town with a little castle, a little square, and a little river. It is ultimately a place to live, and yet in one part of it there’s this hellhole. The two coexist. The town has normalized its relationship with Auschwitz. The camp is respected: people work there, people have been inured to it.

Who is to say that they get used to it, though?  In the reaction of a visitor or in looking at a photograph, maybe they see it again. But every day they’re aware of this thing and they don’t burst into tears or suddenly grab an Israeli flag and scream, “I’m so sorry” to the Jewish people. There’s a combination of indifference, shame and sympathy—that’s healthier, and is a good metaphor for the human heart which holds both good and evil. As humans we live in a normalized relationship with the small evils that we carry out.

Extending that to Henry and Henry is, in a sense, synonymous. I didn’t want there to be difference between the narrator and the narrated. I didn’t want Henry the taxidermist to be Helmut or Francois. These would be cultural indicators and I wanted fairly ordinary names. They are the flip side of each other, perhaps, but the taxidermist has been compromised. It is unclear why has he written this. Was he trying to atone? Was he lamenting victims? Or was he genuinely talking about animals, as he suggests? I wanted his reasons to be ineffable and mysterious—much like why the Nazis did what they did remains ineffable and mysterious.

CM: Some critics have argued that Beatrice and Virgil are simply symbols of innocence. Do you think there’s some truth in the idea that because they are animals, isolated from humans and living on a removed t-shirt, they are somehow more innocent? I see this in contrast with the active role of the taxidermist, who not only controls their narratives but the very structuring of their bodies.

YM: With the province of Lower Back in a country called Shirt, neighbour to the countries of Hat, Trousers, etc., I was just setting up a metaphor, much like the countries of Europe are named arbitrary words. The sound “France” evokes a particular landscape. There are geological divisions and ecosystems that we as humans project on a landscape. If I say Canada, you will think of a grid-work of patterns established by provincial boundaries. The land of Shirt could be Europe, Asia, or Africa. Also, a shirt is a universal item of clothing.

Any victim is inherently innocent if he or she is victim of an act of bigotry. There were murders, rapists, swindlers, liars and adulterers who were killed during the Holocaust. Nonetheless, if they died at the camps they were killed only because they were Jews. And, like I said before, a quarter of the people killed were children—technically and legally you can’t charge a child of a crime. They are morally innocent. So Beatrice and Virgil are, in that way, symbols of innocence. We know very little about them.

CM: So you’re saying that while they may not be categorically innocent of other crimes, they are innocent in their victimhood?

YM: Yes, they’re innocent. That doesn’t simplify what happened to them. A woman who is raped is innocent in terms of the victimization of rape. That woman might steal paper from the storage at her work and might be guilty of minor theft but she wasn’t raped because of that. I could have hinted at Virgil’s past life—but that would have cast moral opprobrium and that’s irrelevant.

CM: I read the final segment of Beatrice & Virgil, “Games for Gustav,” as a move back to the literal, historical traumas of the Holocaust, a move to language about the Holocaust with which a reader will be familiar. Do you think that’s a fair reading?

YM: No. It is my attempt at allegory. It refers to things holocaustal but not explicitly. Some kid in Korea could read those games with no knowledge of the Holocaust, and if he’s in the right frame of mind he will read them with discomfort. He’d think, “My God, I don’t know! I’d have to think about this.” They are twelve moral conundrums, twelve appalling circumstances. Anyone with knowledge of the Holocaust will know where they come from.

It is like reading Animal Farm and knowing it is about Russia and Stalin, but another reader could think that it’s not about Russia but is actually about American politics in the seventies and that the pig Napoleon is Richard Nixon! You can read the first game [“Your ten-year-old son is speaking to you. He says he has found a way of obtaining some potatoes to feel your starving family. If he is caught, he will be killed. Do you let him go?”] and think that it’s right out of the Warsaw ghetto, but I think it can also be applied to Rwanda or Bosnia, etc. Any isolated group will have difficulty finding food. These games arise out of the Holocaust but they don’t have the encumbrance of its history.

I wanted to construct an allegory but there are limits to that. Henry the writer couldn’t escape the story-killing qualities of genocide entirely. Genocide is like a guillotine coming down: it just rips everything apart out of nowhere, which is exactly how it was lived too. If there had been narrative continuity—A, then B, then C, then D—to mass murder, then the Jews would have escaped, but they stayed on. Just as Henry the writer doesn’t understand Henry the taxidermist and his play, Jews didn’t understand Nazis until it had reached a certain level. By then it was too late and they were caught in the web of the Nazis. Even they could not read it.

Photo by Macarena Yanez

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