By Ron Charles
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; C01
BEATRICE AND VIRGIL
By Yann Martel
Spiegel & Grau. 197 pp. $24
Yann Martel's new novel is about a man named Henry, who once wrote a novel that featured wild animals and became a worldwide sensation like, say, the Booker Prize-winning "Life of Pi." After several years of enjoying his fans' adulation, Henry, like Yann Martel, writes an experimental book about the Holocaust. But in this fictional world, Henry can't get his book published.
Alas, in our world, we're not that lucky.
"Beatrice and Virgil" is so dull, so misguided, so pretentious that only the prospect of those millions of "Pi" fans could secure the interest of major publishers and a multimillion-dollar advance. This short tale runs into trouble almost from its first precious page with an autobiographical portrait of the thinly disguised author. Henry writes his new book under the dubious assumption that people ought to take more poetic license with the Holocaust. Martel explains, "Henry had noticed over years of reading books and watching movies how little actual fiction there was about the Holocaust," which can only mean that Henry spent those years reading Victorian novels and watching the Nature Channel. For far too long, Henry thinks, authors have felt confined within the narrow boundaries of historical realism. "Why this suspicion of the imagination," he wonders, "why the resistance to artful metaphor? A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real. Was there not a danger to representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality?"
Whatever the dangers of such factuality may be, "Beatrice and Virgil" is a convincing example of the perils of Holocaust creativity.
Spurned by those oafish publishers who can't understand the profundity of his strange Holocaust book ("Where are you going to put the bar code?," one asks), Henry gives up writing entirely. He and his wife leave Canada and move to "one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin." Perhaps it was give me a break.
This awkward mixture of realism and fairy-tale abstraction only gets more annoying as the story continues. Henry takes Spanish lessons, he joins an amateur theater group, he gets a job at a chocolate shop, but none of this matters. It's all just filler until he receives the manuscript of a strange play with a note attached: "Dear Sir, I read your book and much admired it. I need your help." Curious, Henry traces the manuscript to an old taxidermist whose surreal store is filled with stuffed animals of all kinds. "Go ahead," he tells Henry impassively. "Look as closely as you want. All the animals are alive -- it's time that has stopped."
Indeed, it seems to. During the rest of the novel, Henry and this cryptic taxidermist meet to read and discuss the old man's script. It's a "Waiting for Godot" dialogue between a pair of long-suffering animals, a donkey and a monkey named Beatrice and Virgil. It takes place on a giant striped shirt, like those worn by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. "It's symbolic," we're told, though the allusion to Dante's "Divine Comedy" is just one of several dead ends.
Long passages of the animals' conversation are reproduced, sometimes inane, sometimes portentous. The first snippet is a seven-page scene in which Virgil and Beatrice talk about a pear: "A pear has an unusual shape," Virgil says. "It's round and fat on the bottom, but tapered on top." "I can't quite see it," Beatrice answers. "Does the fruit come to a point? Is it shaped like a cone?" Hold on to your seats!
Martel reportedly wrote the entire two-act play first and then, seeing that it didn't work, constructed this frame about a famous novelist and a creepy taxidermist whose face "sucked the life out of laughter." But that solution merely exacerbates the tedium of his heavy-handed allegory. Every time Henry tells us how fascinating he finds the old man's play, he inadvertently emphasizes what a sophomoric piece of Beckett-lite it really is:
"Virgil: We've done nothing wrong! But speaking of which, what day is it today?
"Virgil: I thought it was Friday.
"Beatrice: Maybe it's Sunday.
"Virgil: I think it's Tuesday.
"Beatrice: Is it possibly Monday?
"Virgil: Perhaps it's Wednesday.
"Beatrice: It must be Thursday then.
"Virgil: God help us.
"Virgil: I can't take much more of this."
[Insert own joke here.]
There's no pleasure in dismissing this book; Martel clearly has set out in all sincerity to commemorate the Holocaust and consider its effect on victims, survivors and perpetrators. His portrayal of Beatrice and Virgil struggling to invent some way to talk about horrors that defy language is evocative and potentially interesting. But as the story continues, allusions to Nazism, race laws and concentration camps grow more clunky and obvious. The play culminates in a stomach-turning scene of torture and murder that produces visceral impact by substituting melodrama for insight.
And what can we possibly do with the last dozen pages, each of which contains a brief emotional sucker-punch posed as an ethical dilemma? Consider this: "Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter's head?"
I'm sorry, but this allegory is no "Animal Farm" or "Watership Down." It's a cloying episode of "Winnie the Pooh" In Which Piglet and Rabbit Are Hacked Apart and Eaten. Martel's attempt to represent 6 million Jews with a pleasant donkey and a friendly monkey is just well-meaning sentimentality dressed up with postmodern doodads. "Beatrice and Virgil" does little to bring us closer to appreciating the plight of those victims or to fathoming the cruelty of their murderers. Whatever "artful metaphor" Martel began with, it ends up skinned and stuffed -- not alive, not even lifelike.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/roncharles.