Wednesday, 4 August 2010
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
On the latter charge, I think what he was actually saying was that works about the Holocaust have been largely concerned with historical realism, and that the field is dominated by accounts by historians and a small percentage of survivors. Novelists have tended to emulate this approach, not least because there is the very difficult and sensitive question of ownership to overcome. One of the most characteristic features of traumatic events is the way in which it separates survivors from everyone else: people feel that only their fellow victims truly understand the experience and can become angry and defensive about depictions of both event and trauma. There’s an unintended elitism in this, and it’s not helped by insensitivity on the part of the wider public, who have their own lives to get on with and forget how long emotional scars can persist. In Beatrice and Virgil Martel talks about the need to define a means “to talk-about so that we might live-with” and to find a label – “the Horrors” – which act both to locate the past within everyday language but at the same time to function as a memorial. His exploration, through the endearingly innocent Beatrice and Virgil, of how we might create everyday signifiers, a sewing kit to stitch life back together again, is entirely pertinent. The survivor of trauma soon learns that he or she will, before much time has passed, meet with either prurience or ennui: the world is busy with its own concerns and has neither time nor inclination to worry about bleeding hearts. So they are offended when they read the torture scene near the end of Beatrice and Virgil, and angry that they have been made to feel complicit – but we are complicit, because while I write this, and you read it, someone somewhere is being tortured, and what are we doing about it? We’re thinking about something else as fast as we can. Oh, and on another level, we are every minute of every day compounding the greatest ecological disaster imaginable, and frankly I have no compunction in comparing the wholesale slaughter and extinction of other species to the Holocaust. If we spent a bit more time remembering the evils humanity has perpetuated, we might not be so ready to feel superior to the animals we share the planet with. Over-simplification? Or looking for the essential truth?
I don’t think it’s surprising to find that Martel – an author who has spent two years gently berating the Canadian prime minister over his personal and political lack of interest in the world of ideas – has written a moral book, and moral books can be hard to read. Not heavy in the words-on-a-page sense, it has much in common with a short story rather than a novel, including its length (around 200 pages); no, if you allow it to be, it is challenging and upsetting, and I think much of the vitriol which has been levelled at it comes from denial. It would be impossible to say that I enjoyed it, and I shan’t want to read it again (although I may have to remind myself of parts of it from time to time). It’s a big mistake to go in expecting another Life of Pi, though I think it’s a perfectly natural follow-on from a writer who blurs the boundaries between philosophy and literature – a Brechtian parable for a disaffected world. It’s also a courageous attempt to deal with one of the most difficult periods in our recent past and, if you are open to its challenges, I believe you will find it rewarding.
Postscript: it's interesting that while I was reading the book and writing this post, Radio 4 has been trailing a programme about Auschwitz, which is apparently in great need of attention as its fabric crumbles. How to preserve it? Does it lose its essential nature if it is "repaired"? Does "restoration" detract from its authenticity? And what kind of memorial does it provide for different nations?