Yann Martel’s second novel, The Life of Pi, a fable with animals, won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and was translated into 38 languages.
Yann Martel’s second novel, The Life of Pi, a fable with animals, won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and was translated into 38 languages. The narrator of Beatrice and Virgil, who lives, like Martel, in Canada, hit the literary jackpot with his second novel, a fable with animals. A self-referential layer can be assumed.
Since his success, the narrator, Henry, has tried to write a ‘flip book’ about the Holocaust: two back-to-back books in one volume, which can be read either from the front or the back, part fiction and part an historical essay. He has the strange delusion that there is ‘little fiction’ about the Holocaust. This might, I suppose, be regarded as a character trait; Henry throughout the book shows a peculiar lack of awareness of others, remarkable in a novelist.
His ‘flip-book’ is rejected by his publishers; and Henry’s reaction is singularly off-key:
His flip-book was about having his soul ripped out — with it, attached, his tongue. Wasn’t that what every Holocaust was about, aphasia? . . . For his part, Henry now joined those who had been shut up by the Holocaust.
So, having a book rejected is comparable to suffering trauma or death in a concentration camp? That is not just pretentious; it is morally tone-deaf.
Henry retreats from failure to a pretentiously unnamed city,
one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin.
The point of this modish post-modern uncertainty is unclear. It certainly does not give Henry’s life there any universality: privileged by wealth, he has no need to earn a living, and fills his time with rarefied hobbies. He takes up the clarinet; he enrols in a local theatre company; he serves as a waiter in a fair-trade chocolate café. In none of these activities, however, does he connect with another human being. His clarinet teacher is, apparently, wise and patient; yet he remains as much of a non-character as Henry’s shadowy wife, who engages less of Henry’s interest than his cat, Mendelssohn, or his dog, Erasmus. (Even with his dog, however, he is not interested enough to spot that it is, somewhat improbably, suffering from rabies.)
In his spare time, Henry answers fan letters. A brief letter that he decides to answer in person leads him to Okapi Taxidermists, whose elderly proprietor is also called Henry. Henry-the-taxidermist intensifies every aspect of Henry-the-narrator’s creepy nullity. He makes no social effort whatsoever; he has absolutely no sense of humour; and though he reconstructs dead animals with obsessive precision, he shows no interest at all in Erasmus, the living dog.
For a while, Henry-the-taxidermist beguiles the interest of the reader: one wonders, for example, if he is intended to be autistic. He is, however, so resolutely rendered merely in negatives that he ultimately becomes a blank (this, some might say, is the point: evil is a nullity.)
Henry-the-taxidermist has been writing a play about two characters called Beatrice and Virgil. He sends a few pages to Henry-the-narrator, and reads more out loud, though not, of course, in the correct order. These passages provide some of the deepest longeurs in this short book. Beatrice and Virgil turn out to be a stuffed donkey and a stuffed howler monkey in the taxidermist’s shop; and the idea of a play about them is strange enough to be, initially, intriguing. But the actual work is preposterous, derivative, and, worst of all, truly and appallingly dull. (Some, I suppose, might say that this too is intended: the banality of evil.)
If you want to read about a talking donkey and howler monkey, exchanging sub-Beckettian dialogue as they traverse a giant shirt, all of which is supposed to be a way of exploring the impossibility of talking about the Holocaust, then this is the novel for you. Those who care about Becket will complain about the rank plagiarism of Henry-the-taxidermist’s dialogue. Those who care about the reality of the Holocaust may have deeper grounds for complaint.
In this play within the novel, the suffering species are animals, persecuted by humans. This sounds like an animal-rights allegory: activists regularly make the repellent claim that the exploitation of animals is comparable to the atrocities inflicted upon the Jews. Here, though, the reverse analogy is made: Jews are like animals.
This is shocking; but the shock could have been exploited to proper moral effect. It is, after all, appalling but true that in films the death of a cute mutt is far more taboo than the rape, torture, mutilation or killing of humans. An animal allegory could have re-sensitised readers to the brute obscenity of inflicting pain.
The grotesque torture of animals described in the play within the novel could have a point. It is certainly horrible; but the most repellent thing about it is that it falls short of proper imagining. Beatrice the donkey is seized by humans, who grab her mane and tail, and truss her back legs. Her animalness is emphasised; yet, when she is tortured by near-drowning, she ‘coughed and vomited water’.
Donkeys can’t vomit. That is lazy writing. This is neither a proper attempt to imagine the tortures suffered by humans in the Holocaust, nor a truly thought through re-imagining of animal pain. Beatrice is denied even the dignity of being a real donkey.
She is being used, and the Holocaust is being used. The real suffering of millions of people is deployed as a sort of moral and artistic shortcut, to give spurious gravitas to a shoddy piece of work. This novel is ‘bumming a ride upon the Holocaust’, in Peter Hall’s memorable phrase: it is, indeed, a complete bummer.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 12, 2010