BOOK REVIEW: Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times – Site Edition Saturday, July 03, 2010

Author: Yann Martel

According to a website, the Middle East, race relations, gun control, origins of man and religion are among the top 10 things that can never be discussed online “without serious drama following shortly thereafter”.

“The systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborator,” otherwise known as the Holocaust, is number four on this list.

Their reasoning is simple: whichever side you are on, this one topic is a guaranteed firestarter.

Yann Martel is not just talking about the fourth item on the list but is also seeking a new venue altogether to stage his ‘representation’ of that event. To know how he intends to take on such a delicate subject and why it took him eight years to write another book, one must meet Henry.

Henry L’Hote, the main character of this book, is an author headed back in time to retrieve the essence of the Holocaust — he looks suspiciously like Yann Martel, an author bound for similar shores. Henry’s idea will get rejected in the storybook world and Martel’s allegorical treatment, that attempted to push boundaries with a novel and essay, has already been through a similar ordeal. According to an interview by Mick Brown that appeared in the Telegraph, Martel’s original book consisted of a play and an essay. After the rejection, he rewrote the entire novel, working fragments of the play in with the other elements to create Beatrice and Virgil.

Henry/Yann will lay the groundwork at the outset to defend their controversial approach and explain why they believe that interpretation of historical events is vital. His reasoning is simple: “No poetic licence was taken with — or given to — the Holocaust; it was always historical, factual, documentary, anecdotal, testimonial, literal.” Until now.

Henry, like Martel, has dared to blur the lines between fact and fiction with a flipbook that will have two covers, two sets of distinct pages attached to a common spine, upside down and back to back to each other. He is convinced that “fiction and non-fiction are not so easily divided” and “if history does not become a story, it dies to everyone”. In his mind, “fiction may not be real but it is true; it goes beyond a garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truth.”

The protagonist has it all figured out but unfortunately he hits a brick wall because Martel’s fictional world also imposes the same limitations. Henry makes a useful spokesperson, standing by, ready with explanations to help readers grasp Yann’s concept while he duels with his own editors (four), a historian and a bookseller trying to make them see the merits of his own approach. They, in turn, give all the reasons his flipbook model is a “complete and un-publishable failure”.

Poor Henry must renounce the idea. Undeterred by his failed flipbook experiment, a determined Yann sets out to prove them wrong and show them why it is imperative to capture that particular instance, not just with a historian’s preciseness but also with an artist’s flair. He stops to give instances where “artists have taken vast sprawling tragedies before, found its heart and represented it in a non-literal compact way. The unwieldy encumbrance of history was thus reduced and packed in a suitcase.” He goes on to imagine “art as a suitcase — light, portable, essential” and wonders why “such a treatment was not possible, or deemed necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe’s Jews?”

Having made a strong case for his ideas, Man Booker prize winner and best-selling author Yann Martel can proceed with the original plan; manipulate Henry — the highly successful writer — helping him find a way to scale the wall of resistance put up by an ignorant world, that will allow them to revisit and ‘interpret’ the horror and guide readers through the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

He uses unorthodox methods and the same topsy-turvy logic to achieve what his character initially failed to do. A disillusioned and dejected Henry allows the author to set a course that takes him away from a disastrous lunch to an unnamed city and, as the Holocaust slowly recedes in the distance, a way to represent the tragedy as an artful metaphor appears on the horizon.

The book is beautifully crafted with a riveting storyline that will take a circuitous path before it returns to the original premise of framing the Holocaust differently.

The author, whose last book was the internationally acclaimed Man Booker prize wining Life of Pi, is on a slippery slope here. Yet, despite the hostile reception, negative reviews and the disturbing end, Beatrice and Virgil cannot be dismissed lightly. The book is impossible to forget.

Spiegel & Grau; First Edition; Pp 224; Rs 850

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