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Book Review

Winnie-the-Pooh meets the Holocaust

Yann Martel's follow-up to Life of Pi is a risky fable about genocide


Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
250pp, Canongate Books Ltd, £15.99

What a perplexing mixture of opposites Yann Martel's long-awaited new novel turns out to be: clarity and confusion, insight and banality, boldness and a persistent, self-monitoring nervousness.

The nervousness, at least, is understandable. What author wouldn't be nervous offering up a fable about the Holocaust featuring a talking donkey and monkey? Just about every element in that description, from fable to monkey, is likely to offend someone, and you can't blame Martel, having embarked on such a project, for worrying out loud about it, or hedging it with layers of pre-emptive self-defence.

A kind of serial distancing of author from content seems to have determined the basic structure: frames within frames within frames. The donkey and monkey are figures in a play within the novel. The play, about animals fleeing unspeakable horrors, is presented as the work of one of the book's characters, an elderly taxidermist with a mysterious past connected, in some way, to the Holocaust. The taxidermist in turn enters the orbit of the book's protagonist, a famous author, after requesting his help with the play. And finally the famous author, who has been unable to write for several years after being ridiculed by his publisher for attempting his own animal-allegory about, yes, the Holocaust, is a mask or stand-in for Martel himself, having written a hugely successful novel that sounds distinctly like Martel's own Life of Pi.

Much of Beatrice and Virgil, not surprisingly, is taken up in the preparation of this elaborate machinery. A number of classic texts, from Flaubert's tale of animal butchery and religious redemption, "Saint Julian Hospitator", to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, are enlisted to set the terms on which the book wishes to be understood. Likely objections to the material are foreseen and articulated, presumably as a means of defusing them: "Winnie-the-Pooh meets the Holocaust", scoffs the author's wife when she learns of the taxidermist's play. Resonances and symmetries are set up across the frames some overt, such as the fact that both the author and the taxidermist are named Henry; some more discreet. As a narrative artefact, it is deftly put together, the concentric elements all carefully meshed, with lively descriptive passages about the taxidermist's shop, for instance, with its tools and jars and uncannily arrested creatures bringing each component persuasively on to the page.

But under the clean, confident surface of this short novel there is something murky and, in my view, dimly appalling. "Animals," to quote Lévi-Strauss's famous phrase, "are good to think with." In Life of Pi, Martel used a Bengal tiger, trapped on a lifeboat with a teenage boy, as a way of thinking about large abstractions such as adversity and resourcefulness, and pulled off a remarkable triumph. Here the aim, at first, seems to be to use our current callousness towards wild animals as a way of thinking about the murder of six million Jews. Such, at any rate, is the writer's initial interpretation of the taxidermist's play. There's nothing inherently wrong about this, though it does conjure up, perhaps intentionally, Heidegger's notorious remark equating the death camps with the battery farms of the modern food industry. But as the book progresses we discover that, far from using animals to think about Jews, the taxidermist is more interested in using Jews to think about animals.

This does seem problematic, if only because the Holocaust is a concrete historical event, and to use it as an integer in a fable about something else is inevitably to falsify it. Arguably, since the writer finally turns against the taxidermist, the novel itself could be said to reject this approach. But I'm not sure that holds up as a disclaimer. For one thing, the book that Henry, the writer, was dissuaded from publishing seems to have been premised on precisely this cavalier attitude to reality. As he says, complaining of its chilly reception: "The unwieldy encumbrance of history was packed into a suitcase. Art as suitcase, light, portable and essential was such a treatment not possible, indeed was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe's Jews?"

Ironic or not, what do all these self-cancelling feints and alibis leave us with? Some nice writing about taxidermy, to be sure, and some worthy observations on the literature of cruelty. Beyond that, though, Beatrice and Virgil seems, despite its evidently large ambitions, strangely trivial and narcissistic: a book that ends up thinking about neither Jews nor animals, but using the extermination of both to think about, of all things, writer's block.


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