Last night, I had the opportunity to interview Yann Martel, author of the mega best-selling Life of Pi and the new Beatrice and Virgil, at an event sponsored by the Booksmith. It was a real pleasure to meet Martel–he’s modest, unassuming, and brilliant, using his imagination and intellect to explore some tough questions about humanity.
While researching the interview, I came across his website whatisstephenharperreading.com, which is a delight. The Prime Minister of Canada had been virtually ignoring artists and arts funding, so Martel took it upon himself to send Harper a book every two weeks, so that he could experience moments of “stillness.” Each book is accompanied by a letter, which is charming and explains why he’s recommending that particular text. Most of the books are under 200 pages–Harper is a busy man, Martel explains–and range from Leon Tolstoy to Maurice Sendak. Anyone who loves books should take a look at this site, at least for the fact that it’s a fabulous book list.
Martel’s new book, Beatrice and Virgil, is not the kind of delightful, gripping story that Life of Pi was. That’s mainly to do with the subject matter: it’s a kind of “Animal Farm” about the Holocaust. Martel believes that the Holocaust may be vanishing from our collective consciousness, partly because we have limited our stories about it mainly to objective history and memoir. He thinks we need to respond to the horrifying events of the Holocaust with the same kind of imagination deployed in Albert Camus’ The Plague (about a cholera epidemic in Algeria, which can be read as an allegory about the French Resistance); Picasso’s Guernica, about the Spanish Civil War; and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, about the Russian Revolution and Stalinism. So Beatrice and Virgil is his attempt to do just that.
Not surprisingly, Martel has been savaged by reviewers. Michiko Kakutami, in the Times, said he was “trivializing” the Holocaust, and called the book “perverse.” Others have said it’s misguided and worse. A few reviewers have said it’s a little masterpiece, and in general readers love it or hate it. All of this seemed not to move Martel, who has confidence in his artistic vision, and is on to his next book, about three chimps in Portugal.
I thought Beatrice and Virgil was interesting, well-written, and I appreciated Martel’s vision and daring. It’s an emotionally difficult book to read, and is layered with so many literary references and styles–Beckett, Flaubert, Dante; play-within-a-story, memoir, games–that it’s hard to be truly drawn in. Parts of the story appear in fragments, because, Martel explained, what we have left of the Holocaust are mainly fragments. The ending is abrupt and brutal, but that’s the way the ending was. I applaud Martel for taking on such a huge theme, and think the book is well worth reading. He’s an incredibly humane author who will only be more and more interesting to watch. Martel said that it’s difficult to write a story about the Holocaust, and among other things, he proved that