There's probably nothing harder to do than write about a subject which has not only been written to death, but which is also is some manner considered highly sacrosanct. Even more perplexing is when the subject is about the unspeakable horrors that humans have proven themselves capable of inflicting upon each other and the world. In today's world we are so inundated with images and information that the mere recounting of events has little or no effect on us. Hearing the same story over and over again, instead of increasing our disgust, deadens our emotional reaction and we are no longer able to take in the real implications of what's being described.
Yann Martel brings that issue home with his new release, Beatrice and Virgil, published by Random House Canada on April 6, 2010 (April 13 in the US). Henry is a successful author whose latest story idea is rejected by his publishers; he moves with his wife to start a new life where he has little or nothing to do with writing. The book Henry's publishers had rejected was his attempt to find a way to tell the story of the Holocaust in a new way. He worked for five years creating in reality two books: an essay and a work of fiction. In order to accommodate both under the same roof his idea was to make a flip book — a work with two covers which the reader could start from either end and when finished with the first part, flip the book over and then start reading the second part in the other direction.
It was running head first into the brutal realities of publishing – he was taken to task by editors, publishers, and book sellers over lunch as to all the reasons it wouldn't work – that precipitated his exodus from both the city he lived in and writing. However, when he receives in the mail an obscure short story by the 19th century French writer Gustave Flaubert and an excerpt from a play that his correspondent has written along with a simple note saying he had read and enjoyed Henry's novel and needed his help, Henry was intrigued enough to contact the man.
The Flaubert story was a particularly gruesome piece featuring what appears to be a highly amoral individual, who as a child takes great delight in the slaughter of animals. For some reason Henry's correspondent has highlighted the most gruesome of these scenes throughout the story as if to draw particular attention to them. The story continues with the young man perpetrating all sorts of violence throughout his life, including the killing of his parents. Although he is eventually redeemed for the murder of his parents, nothing in the story gives answer to his senseless slaughter of animals. What Henry can't figure out is what the excerpt from the play — featuring two characters named Beatrice and Virgil with the latter attempting to describe a pear to the former — has to do with the themes expressed in the short story.
When he discovers the playwright, also named Henry, is also a taxidermist, and the characters of Beatrice and Virgil were inspired by two of his subjects, a donkey and a howler monkey respectively, the connection is apparently obvious. While the play itself starts off sounding like a remake of Beckett's Waiting For Godot as the two characters seem intent on finding ways of filling time, it suddenly veers into a horrible account of the persecutions suffered by the two creatures at the hands of humans. It turns out the help he requires is that he wants Henry to actually write for him — a description of Virgil in Beatrice's words.
Amazingly, instead of feeling resentful at being used by this total stranger, Henry finds that's he's excited and inspired. Perhaps it's because of the obvious connections that can be drawn between the script and Henry's idea about finding new ways for writing about the Holocaust, but whatever it is he finds himself not only completely immersed in the play, but fascinated with both the taxidermist and his products to the point where he takes home various pieces. The man himself must be close to 80, Henry figures, yet is filled with a kind of remorseless energy. While some of his habits might be deemed eccentric, he is reluctant to let Henry take any of the script home with him to work on. Henry doesn't understand why everybody else, including his dog, his wife, and a waiter in a cafe where they meet, react so negatively to his new acquaintance.
What Martel has done with Beatrice and Virgil is give readers a multi-layered and highly textured read that at first seems somewhat obtuse and disjointed. For audiences used to being spoon-fed information in comfortable, digestible servings it might appear there are large gaps in the narrative. However, what he has done is both gradually build a picture of the obsessive nature of the artist in his character of Henry and find a new way of telling the story of the Holocaust. While the play within the novel is the obvious parallel, with its depiction of innocents being persecuted for no reason save their differences, as we follow the trajectory of Henry's obsession with both the play and the taxidermist it feels like we are watching the ease with which we can become complicit in horrific events. For although all the clues are right in front of him, Henry fails to see the obvious with almost fatal consequences.
As Martel has Henry make clear at the beginning, writing about subjects as abhorrent and sensitive as the Holocaust is a precarious proposition. Henry makes the argument that war has seen the death of millions of people, but that hasn't prevented the subject from being represented by many genres — war comedies, war romances, war thrillers, and so on, and because of this we've gained a truer perspective of its nature. However, very few books of fiction dealing with the Holocaust have ever done anything but present it strictly as straight historical fiction that deals directly with actual events. With Beatrice and Virgil Martel has managed to prove that point to a certain degree. I don't think the world will ever be ready for a comedy about mass murder or even a romantic Holocaust story — but you can write about it effectively without once ever setting foot in the camps or having the action take place in the 1940s.
In fact, in some ways he's made the situation even more horrific by bringing it back to the personal level instead of allowing us to hide from realities behind the safety of historical facts. If we know in advance we are going to be reading a story of the Holocaust, we inure ourselves against what we suppose will be the horrors to come and so pass through relatively unscathed. Here Martel almost ambushes us with it, as although his main character raises the subject in the opening of the book, it's apparently dropped with the rejection of his book and his decision to take a sabbatical from writing. Even the introduction of the Flaubert story, with its scenes of carnage, and our early glimpses of the play are made to seem more about the plight of endangered species through the introduction of Henry the taxidermist.
According to Henry, the novelist, only two percent of Holocaust victims have ever written about their experiences. As that's the case, in order for these horrendous types of events to be remembered and the experience properly understood by others, it's necessary for those who've not been through it to find a way to bring it to life so the world can understand the horror in an attempt to prevent it from occurring again. As we don't seem to be able to learn from history — ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and all the other ethnic violence that has occurred since the end of WW ll makes that apparent — it becomes imperative some other way of getting the message across is found. Martel's book might not be the whole answer, but it's a positive step in the right direction.