Animals are good to think with. — Claude Lévi-Strauss
After a gap of nine years, and taking five years to write, Yann Martel’s follow-up to the hugely popular Life of Pi is the slim — barely 200-pages-long — novella, Beatrice and Virgil. Needless to say it was eagerly expected and much was expected and so it’s not unsurprising that many of his readers were disappointed with what was presented. Not only did they feel short-changed by the word count but also by the content. Canongate’s cover is very similar to the one used for Life of Pi. That cover had a boy and a tiger adrift on the sea. This new one shows a monkey on the back of a donkey wandering through what looks like a desert. So one can forgive readers for assuming that this book would be the same but different.
I’ve never read Life of Pi. My wife has. She recommended it to me but I never got round to it. And that's a good thing because it meant that I could read Beatrice and Virgil on its own merits, which I did. I actually remember very little about what my wife told me about Life of Pi anyway. The only expectation I had was that this was clearly a man who could write and engage with his readers so I expected a well-written and entertaining book and in that respect I have no real complaints; many of the passages were a joy to read, in fact. I felt it ended a little quickly and unpleasantly but then there is an addendum, Games for Gustav, which comprises thirteen cards printed one to each page which ends the book. The game is referred to within the body of the text but it was nice to have it included and it provided the perfect coda to the work. This took a bit of the bad taste out of the ending for me. Let me just qualify that remark: it was not the unpleasantness that left a bad taste in my mouth — I had worked out pages beforehand where this was all heading — but the fact that after taking such care to build up to the book’s climax it was handled so badly. My feeling was that he’s said all he has to say and needed to find a way to end the book. Benjamin Secher, writing in The Telegraph, described it thus:
A climactic scene that could have been lifted straight out of a second-rate television drama produces, too late, a burst of action.
With a few exceptions, the book has not been well received by critics, one reviewer, Edward Champion, calling it “the worst book of the decade;” I’ll come back to him. There were a few glowing reviews – USA Today said that it was “dark but divine” and “it just might be a masterpiece” – but the majority were reserved at best. Most chewed it over for a bit and then spat it out.
I’m not sure what I felt when I’d finished it. The subject matter didn’t bother me; that he’d chosen to use animals rather than humans didn’t bother me; that he was as subtle as a sledgehammer in his literary references didn’t bother me; that it was clearly self-indulgent and self-referential didn’t bother me. Two things niggled at me: 1) the revelation of who the taxidermist really was and 2) that I only got to read snippets of his play. I felt the first was badly handled and, as regards the second, if Martel had scrapped the book and only published the play in its entirety I’d pay good money to go and see it but I’d still probably walk out five minutes before the end.
Let’s start at the beginning:
Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well. It had won prizes and was translated into dozens of languages. Henry was invited to book launches and literary festivals around the world; countless schools and book clubs adopted the book; he regularly saw people reading it on planes and trains; Hollywood was set to turn it into a movie; and so on and so forth.
That could be Martel. Indeed Life of Pi is currently being made into a film to be directed by Ang Lee.
Eventually the business of personally promoting his novel died down, and Henry returned to an existence where he could sit quietly in a room for weeks and months on end. He wrote another book. It involved five years of thinking, researching, writing, and rewriting. The fate of that book is not immaterial to what happened next to Henry, so it bears being described.
And that’s how long it took Mantel to finish Beatrice and Virgil.
The book Henry wrote was in two parts, and he intended them to be published in what the publishing trade calls a flip book: that is, a book with two sets of distinct pages that are attached to a common spine upside down and back-to-back to each other. If you flick your thumb through a flip book, the pages, halfway along, will appear upside down. A head-to-tails flip of the conjoined book will bring you to its fraternal twin. So the name flip book.
Now I’m not sure if Mantel pitched his book to his publishers this way but in a television interview he did confirm that he had intended that Beatrice and Virgil be published along with an accompanying essay. His (or should that be ‘Their’?) publishers were not keen:
[F]iction and nonfiction are very rarely published in the same book. That was the hitch. Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries—separate aisles, separate floors—and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another.
The actual subject matter is also a problem:
It should be mentioned, because it is central to the difficulties Henry encountered, to his tripping and stumbling and falling, that his flip book concerned the murder of millions of civilian Jews—men, women, children—by the Nazis and their many willing collaborators in Europe last century, that horrific and protracted outbreak of Jew-hatred that is widely known, by an odd convention that has appropriated a religious term, as the Holocaust.
Henry’s publishers reject the book. Martel’s talked him out of trying to include the essay but he still has it and hopes it will be published at a future date.
This is where fact and fiction start to diverge. Henry gives up writing, moves out of Canada to a new (unnamed) city and passes his days answering fan mail; he also joins a fraternity of dedicated amateur thespians, the Greenhouse Players, takes up the bassoon but then, because “the crazy arrangement of the finger holes defeated him”, promptly switches to the clarinet; he inveigles his way into working part-time at The Chocolate Road, a local café with “rotating art exhibits, good, usually Latin music and a southerly exposure so it was often lit up by sunlight” and lastly, to complete the picture, Henry and his wife, Sarah, acquire a small puppy, Erasmus, and a kitten, Mendelssohn, from a local animal shelter. And, for several years, this is the contented life he chooses to live. His days pass pleasantly and were it not for the regular dribble of correspondence from readers often reaching him by the most circuitous of routes he might have forgotten that he was ever a writer.
Henry’s second novel, the one that made him famous, featured wild animals, as does Martel’s second novel Life of Pi. Martel incidentally is now at work on a novel about gurus and disciples, starring three chimpanzees. But why? Henry answers but it is Martel that is speaking:
The use of animals in his novel, he explained, was for reasons of craft rather than sentiment. Speaking before his tribe, naked, he was only human and therefore—possibly—likely—surely—a liar. But dressed in furs and feathers, he became a shaman and spoke a greater truth.
You can imagine Henry’s interest being piqued then when a package arrives containing a short story by Flaubert called ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’ that he had not heard of (a tale of animal butchery and religious redemption), an extract from a play where the protagonists are a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil) and the briefest of letters:
I read your book and much admired it.
I need your help.
The signature is barely legible but it looks as if the sender has the same first name as him: Henry. Henry-the-writer always makes a point of replying to his correspondence even if it does take him a while to do so but on learning that the letter originated within the city in which he now resides he decides to deliver his response by hand. The address turns out to be a business, Okapi Taxidermy, and the Henry who has written to him is the taxidermist himself, a tall, dour, laconic octogenarian. The help he requires is in finishing his play, Beatrice and Virgil, a play he has apparently struggled with for decades. Intrigued Henry agrees but soon discovers that what is being attempted here is the very thing his publishers told him he could not do: to represent the Holocaust through means other than historical realism, to “represent the Holocaust differently so that its terrible spirit might not be forgotten." In the taxidermist's hands, the anthropo-morphised Beatrice and Virgil become stand-ins for the Jews exterminated during World War II or, if not all of them, then a least two of them, a representative sample.
This is where the cover of the book is misleading because Beatrice and Virgil aren’t wandering through a sandy desert. No, they’re wandering over a striped shirt; they talk about a country called “The Shirt.” The imagery in the play is transparent but then it’s not being written by a professional writer, just an old man who’s trying to work something out. So it’s easy to criticise Martel for producing a third-rate Beckett rip-off and many have. Beatrice and Virgil are Didi and Gogo. The taxidermist’s play is set on a country road, near a tree, and its two main characters talk about themselves, their sufferings and ways to pass the time:
Beatrice: What should we do?
Virgil: Is there anything we can do?
Beatrice (looking up the road): We could move on.
Virgil: We’ve done that before and it didn’t get us anywhere.
Beatrice: Maybe this time it will.
(They do not move.)
Virgil: We could just talk.
Beatrice: Talk won’t save us.
Virgil: But it’s better than silence.
This approach kept me entertained for page after page. I just love that kind of banter even if it does feel like pastiche. The problem is that the taxidermist has co-opted, animalised and renamed Didi and Gogo for his own ends. Whereas we learn very little about the pasts of the two tramps we soon discover that the donkey and the monkey are fleeing for their lives from something they call ‘the Horrors” and the only thing they’re waiting on, because they are starving, is death.
Would Waiting for Godot work without Godot? What do you mean? Godot isn’t in the play. True but he is a character nevertheless in exactly the same way that Orwell’s Big Brother is a constant presence. Beatrice and Virgil do nothing but talk. There is a lack of expectation. This is a weakness that Henry points out to the taxidermist and so it’s perhaps unfair of critics of Martel to pick at the play-within-the-book for this:
If Henry hadn’t seen it earlier, he was starting to see now where the problem lay with the taxidermist’s play, why he needed help. There seemed to be essentially no action and no plot in it. Just two characters by a tree talking. It had worked for Beckett and Diderot. Mind you, those two were crafty and they packed a lot of action into the apparent inaction.
Apart from Waiting for Godot there are two other works that clearly have had an influence on Martel (ignoring the obvious Dante reference) – George Orwell, whose Animal Farm was an allegory of the Russian Revolution and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a graphic novel in which in which Jews are depicted as mice, while Germans are depicted as cats. These books would seem to set a precedent for using anthropomorphised animals to tackle difficult subjects and each is highly regarded.
Many of the objections to this book are things that the book itself predicts: "Winnie-the-Pooh meets the Holocaust", scoffs the author's wife when she learns of the taxidermist's play. So why do it? Because Mantel is trying to make a point about the, to use his word, “normalisation” of the Holocaust. In a television interview (the one that appears at the end of this article) he had this to say:
Martel:I think we have yet to normalise our relationship with the Holocaust. Now I use that word carefully. I’m not saying banalise, I’m not saying trivialise, I’m saying normalise. In a normalised relationship you approach something with ease, you talk to it, it replies to you, you are in dialogue with it. I don’t think we’re fully in dialogue with the Holocaust. We are beset by apprehensions and people will say, “Of course, six million innocent people died, one quarter of whom were children.”
Interviewer: How could we normalise our relationship with something like that?
Martel: Well we have a normalised relationship with war. The Second World War to give an example cost the lives of twenty million people and that’s a conservative estimate and that’s excluding the Axis deaths, all the German and Italian deaths and that’s excluding the Jewish deaths ... and yet we have a normalised relationship with war. If I said my novel is set during the Second World War I don’t think there would be these radars going up saying, “Oh, this is a touchy issue.” ... If we are afraid to speak of the event we’ll stop speaking about it.
Interviewer: Do we normalise it through fiction though? Some people would argue that history speaks for itself. Why do you think we would need more fiction about the Holocaust?
Mantell: Because I think that is one of the ways in which we normalise it. Because history is too vast. ... Historians, they’re not generalists, they’re specialists; there are Holocaust historians as there are medieval historians. It’s a highly specialised trade and they spend a whole life examining it. Most of us don't have that much time. ... Art is very good at getting at the essence of things.
The interviewer inevitably brought up the bad reviews that the book had received. Mantel, who in the past has been sensitive to criticism, appeared more philosophical this time. What he has done with this book is raise a question and leave it up to others to debate it. The simple fact is that what the Germans did in their concentration camps was felt to be unique, an event unparalleled in human history; it soon had its own name, the Holocaust, and for a while everyone knew what people meant when that expression was used. That’s no longer the case. Since then we’ve had the "Rwandan Holocaust" of 1994, the "Cambodian Holocaust" which refers to the mass killings by the Khmer Rouge regime and for a long time people have been anticipating a nuclear holocaust. Would we need the latter to happen to finally put what happened in the concentration camps into perspective? Will — should — the “Final Solution” ever become ‘just another holocaust’?
These are questions that are not asked in the book and so I think it’s important to draw a line between what the book talks about and what people have begun to talk about because of the book. The taxidermist’s play is not about the Holocaust. It is about animals:
[The taxidermist] was seeing the tragic fate of animals through the tragic fate of Jews. The Holocaust as allegory. Hence Virgil’s and Beatrice’s incessant hunger and fear, their inability to decide where to go or what to do.
At one point the taxidermist reads from an essay he's written:
When I work on an animal, I work in the knowledge that nothing I do can alter its life, which is past. What I am actually doing is extracting and refining memory from death.
But it’s not that simple. There is a whole transference thing going on here too that I’m not going to go into.
I said I would come back to Edward Champion’s comments. He lists eight bullet points:
1. A Terrible Protagonist
2. Overwriting to Expand Word Count
3. Nonsensical Riffing
4. Dissonant Repetition
5. Redundant Description
6. Imprecise Description
7. Lazy Exposition
8. Recycling Text to Fill Up Space
None of these you’ll note are about subject matter which is what most reviewers gripe about. You could also add
9. Poor research
but I personally found most of his examples nitpicky. Okay, he’s entitled to his opinion and his arguments have some validity but most of what Champion regards as ‘wrong’ I took to be stylistic choices. A lot of it depends on how charitable you feel. Julie Martis writes that “the jumbled narrative reflecting Henry’s somewhat confused attempts to make sense of his book’s rejection, his life, and the taxidermist’s play.” That’s another perfectly valid point of view. In her review Caroline Moore writing in The Spectator was also critical, accusing Mantel of “lazy writing”:
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.
I did not know that and I’m sure that 99% of readers didn’t know that. So donkeys can’t vomit. They also can’t talk. The real question is whether the taxidermist would have known that. Or cared. Probably not. He doesn’t come across as someone who is especially interested in live animals so it’s unlikely that he would know something like that nor does he seem the kind of person who would go to great pains to research his subject.
When did the Holocaust begin? Does it include what happened before the camps? Where do you draw the line? Jews have been subjected to persecution and pogroms for years. Beatrice is captured and tortured, yes, but then released. Peter Kemp in his review in The Times picked u p on a phrase in which the monkey’s world is described as having been “shattered like a pane of glass”, which brings to mind the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom (literally "Crystal Night" or The Night of Broken Glass) of 1938 which many historians regard as the beginning of the Final Solution leading up to the Holocaust. But trying to draw exact parallels between the events in the war and the events in the play is not the point.
It is [just as] possible to read Beatrice and Virgil as a book about environmentalism and animal rights, the interpretative slant that the taxidermist-playwright himself seems to prefer. Or as a story about human responsibility and human culpability. Or as a story about the uses and misuses of storytelling. Or as a story about writer’s block and the creative enterprise.
Is Beatrice and Virgil flying the flag for animal rights or is it asking questions of how the story of a tragedy can or should be told? This, according to Martel, is up to the person holding the book. In an interview with Alden Mudge, Martel says:
Great art works because it tells an emotional truth. I suppose great histories could be both factually and emotionally true, but history is very cumbersome. What’s wonderful about art is that it gets at the emotional essence of things and it plays around with the facts. There’s a danger to that; you can manipulate things and you can peddle gross lies. It can be a dangerous tool, but also a very powerful one [which] if well used can deliver more than a history can. A work of art is the beginning of a discussion. It’s part of a dialogue. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to say, ‘Listen, this is what I’m saying; what do you think?’
A lot of people have ‘listened’ and said what they thought. Not everyone liked what they ‘heard’ and said so. But, as I’ve said before, I like books that make me think. Does Mantel get it right? No, absolutely not. But he has a damn good shot at it and after watching the entire hour-long interview with him that you’ll find at the end of this article what I can’t say is that he wasn’t sincere. People learn from their mistakes. We also learn from the mistakes of others. A flawed argument is a good a basis for debate as a sound one.
Yann Martel was born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1963, of Canadian parents who were doing graduate studies. Later they both joined the Canadian Foreign Service and he grew up in Costa Rica, France, Spain and Mexico, in addition to Canada. He continued to travel widely as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India, but is now based mainly in Montreal. He obtained a degree in Philosophy from Trent University in Ontario and then worked variously as a tree planter, dishwasher and security guard before taking up writing full-time from the age of 27.
In 1993 he published two books, Seven Stories and The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios which is a collection of short stories, dealing with such themes as illness, storytelling and the history of the twentieth century; music, war and the anguish of youth; how we die; and grief, loss and the reasons we are attached to material objects. This was followed by his first novel, Self (1996), a tale of sexual identity, orientation and Orlando-like transformation. In 2002 Yann Martel came to public attention when he won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his second novel, Life of Pi which has now been published in over forty countries and territories, representing well over thirty languages. In 2004, a collection of short stories was published entitled We Ate The Children Last.
Mantel lives with writer Alice Kuipers and their son, Theo, in Saskatoon. Theo deserves special mention because Henry in Beatrice and Virgil also has a son called Theo.
Interview on Q TV
EXCERPTS AVAILABLE ONLINE:
 Edward Champion, Why Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is the Worst Book of the Decade, Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits, 12th April 2010
 Deirdre Donahue, ‘Yann Martel's 'Beatrice and Virgil' is dark but divine’, USA Today, 16th April 2010
 Mantel has been working on a project entitled What is Stephen Harper Reading?, where he has been sending the Prime Minister of Canada one book every two weeks that portrays "stillness" with an accompanying explanatory note; Waiting for Godot was #24
 The single most impressive book I've ever read is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Some classics are dull and lifeless, but I think this work is absolutely astounding. It's chock-a-block full of fascinating stories, portraits of a medieval Italy, and such artistry of language. — Exclusive Interview - Life of Yann Martel, AbeBooks
 Animal Farm was #2 in his What is Stephen Harper Reading? project.
 Maus was #12 in his What is Stephen Harper Reading? project.