Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Well, here’s a book that has split opinion in the reading world! If anything, more people seem to have hated than loved it, and there have been a number of truly vitriolic reviews, which is perhaps inevitable when a non-Jewish author takes on a subject like the Holocaust. Frequent complaints seem to be that people feel that their emotions are being manipulated, that Martel oversimplifies complex situations, that it’s offensive that he equates animals with Jews, that he makes the reader feel grubby. A further charge is that he said that there isn’t any fiction  about the Holocaust.

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?


  1. What a great review. It really made me think more about the book and my reaction to it. I think you are right in a lot of what you say, though I still think the very ending was a bit unnecessary and almost drew away fro the earlier bits (not the revelation, but what happens right after it). (Note, I liked the book.) The whole bit before I think does exactly what you say about making us complicit, showing our responsibility, etc, but then right after he figures it out, the results after, to me, is too easy of an out. Great review, very thought provoking!

  2. Captured German war records prove that millions of innocent Jews (and tens of thousands of others) were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany - mostly in gas chambers. These facts have been proven repeatedly through countless thesis and dissertation research papers. Virtually every PhD in the world will stake their career on these known Holocaust FACTS. Despite this knowledge, Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. The deniers have only one agenda - to distort the truth in a way that promotes antagonism against the object of their hatred (Jews), or to deny the culpability of their ancestors and heroes.

    Museums and mandatory public education are appropriate tools to dispel bigotry, especially racial and ethnic hatred. Books and films can also establish the veracity of genocides, such as recent Holocaust films. They help to tell the true story of the perpetrators of genocide; and they reveal the abject terror, humiliation and degradation resulting from such blind loathing and prejudice. Realism in Holocaust books, plays and films helps to disclose the cruelty and horror of genocide to combat the deniers’ virulent and inaccurate historical revision. By doing this, we protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

    Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize genocide we send a critical message to the world. As we continue to live in an age of genocide and ethnic cleansing, we must repel the broken ethics of our ancestors, or risk a dreadful repeat of past transgressions. A world that continues to allow genocide requires ethical remediation. We must show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope. Only through such efforts can we reveal the true horror of genocide and promote the triumphant spirit of humankind.

    Charles Weinblatt
    Author, Jacob’s Courage

  3. This is really great review. I've sort of avoided the reviews so far because I love Yann Martel. I really liked his collection of short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and I loved Life of Pi. I haven't bought this book yet, but it is definitely staying on my wishlist after reading your review.

    (I got to your review through your tweet about it..thought you might want to know)

  4. Amy, I hadn't really seen the outing as an "out", I think at least in part because I was quite glad to finish it. To be honest, I'm not sure where else he could have gone with it, certainly without creating even more unhappy readers!

    Charles, I think my post made it pretty clear that I don't regard the facts of the Holocaust as being in question. Since that is the case, I am more interested here in the question of ways of remembering the Holocaust that will persist when all survivors are gone, and like Martel, I think that such remembrances should include something other than purely historical realist accounts. You say "We must show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong" and of course, I agree. And of course, historically realist accounts must be accessible and we must have physical reminders such as the Auschwitz museum. However, I believe that the value of art (and I include literature here) is to help people transcend their everyday intuitions and develop their empathic responses in ways which otherwise wouldn't be available to them.

    Carin B. - welcome! I'm delighted that I haven't put you off Beatrice and Virgil, and I'd love to hear your thoughts when you read it.

  5. Hey, it wasn't so much the outing that I thought was an "out" but what happened right after it. The outing was good, I thought. But you're right, he had to do something there.

  6. This is such a wonderful review. I too am constantly stunned by the tendency of people to put the suffering of others in the back of their minds. I doubt that people often think of what they are eating. My class was taken to watch a sheep being slaughtered in 5th grade, and I often think people need to see that in their lives and then make the choice about being part of the suffering inflicted on animals. It's just too easy not to think about it.
    I will be adding Beatrice and Virgil to my TBR list.