Earlier this spring, I read a short article by Cynthia Ozick about the duties and responsibilities of Holocaust literature. Her primary argument was that fiction was not the right medium for talking about the Holocaust—other subjects, sure, but not the Holocaust. Ozick concludes with damning statements against Holocaust fiction:
In the name of the autonomous rights of fiction, in the name of the sublime rights of the imagination, anomaly sweeps away memory; anomaly displaces history. In the beginning was not the word, but the camera—and at that time, in that place, the camera did not mislead. It saw what was there to see. The word came later, and in some instances it came not to illumine but to corrupt. (n.p.*)
Ozick’s article came back to me in full force as I read Yann Martel’s unusual novel, Beatrice and Virgil. The novel begins with Henry, a writer, explaining his follow up to a successful debut. This second work is a flip book. One half is narrative fiction. The other half is an essay. The whole is meant to promote an opening in Holocaust fiction. Henry complains that the genre is flooded by historical fiction. There are other ways to tell the stories of the Holocaust. His grand experiment is shot down by his editor and his editor’s allies. Not only will the format not work, but the text doesn’t work. Henry’s critics aren’t as harsh as Ozick might have been, but they essentially kill Henry’s creative spirit.
After abandoning fiction, Henry and his wife emigrate from Canada to an unnamed European country. While his wife finds work, Henry drifts through various creative pursuits. He takes up music and acting in a local troupe. He does not write. He doesn’t even attempt to write, except to answer the fan letters forwarded by his publishers. One brief letter asking for help, accompanied by a strangely annotated copy of a story by Flaubert and a portion of a play manuscript, proves impossible for Henry to ignore or brush off like the rest of his fan mail. This letter brings Henry to another Henry, a dour, close-mouthed taxidermist.
Henry the taxidermist is writing a play about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. And he’s stuck. He need’s Henry the writer’s help to finish it. Henry the writer reluctantly agrees to help.
Beatrice and Virgil is a curious text to read. There are long passages in it from other works, like Henry the taxidermist’s “Beatrice and Virgil” and the Flaubert story. As Henry the writer helps the taxidermists, he begins to commit the cardinal sin of English majors: psychoanalyzing the author through the medium of the author’s writing. English majors are taught that, while there might be useful outside context, a text stands alone. The author is not the narrator. And yet, Henry the writer keeps probing the taxidermist about elements in the play that clearly reference the Holocaust.
Henry the taxidermist, for most of Beatrice and Virgil, stubbornly insists that his play is about animals and the terrible crimes humans have committed against other species. At one point, Henry the taxidermist tells the writer in an essay about taxidermy that:
What I am actually doing [as a taxidermist] is extracting and refining memory from death. In that, I am no different from a historian, who parses through the material evidence of the past in an attempt to reconstruct it and then understand it. (96-97**)
Then, on the next page, the taxidermist claims, curiously, “That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness” (98). What an incongruous reason for a taxidermist to give for his profession! I don’t blame Henry the writer for pointing out the parallels to the Holocaust in the play and questioning the taxidermist about them. It’s clear from the way the taxidermist behaves that he’s trying to work out a past trauma. He can’t talk about it directly, so the taxidermist came up with his Beckett-like allegorical play.
As I read Beatrice and Virgil, it became clear to me that I was being led to a number of thematic echoes and parallels in the text. There are two Henrys, both trying to tell stories about the Holocaust via non-traditional means. The metaphors in the play are too numerous to count. Fiction and nonfiction intertwine all over the place, like Henry the writer’s failed double book. Throughout it all, character dialog returns to the inability of language to communicate exactly what happened.
This is not a pleasant book to read. Animals, as metaphors for Holocaust victims, are brutally tortured. The coda, “Games for Gustav,” is a series of dark games that represent various experiences of the Holocaust. I wavered between crying and swearing as I read them. This is not a book to disappear into, either. It’s a book that requires rigorous thought. Readers have to be on their mental toes to catch all the parallels Martel puts into the book, the themes, the metaphors, and all the other rhetorical devices. The sheer density of the text ends up whacking readers over the head with the notion that it doesn’t matter how literally true a story is as long as it contains a particle of Truth. By the end, I saw Beatrice and Virgil as an argument wearing the clothing of a novel.
* Ozick, Cynthia. “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination.” Commentary Magazine. March 1, 1999. Web. April 28, 2015.
** Quotes from the novel come from the 2010 hardcover by Spiegel and Grau.