The Shoah: An allegory

‘Works of art last longer than works of history,’ says author Yann Martel in defending his new novel about the Holocaust, ‘Beatrice and Virgil.’

Life of Pi 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Life of Pi 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Promoting his latest book, Canadian author Yann Martel, whose best-selling Life of Pi earned him the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, shared his work, Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel, at an intimate writer’s salon last month, in support of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Center and the upcoming 26th Annual Cherie Smith Jewish Community Center of Greater Vancouver Jewish Book Festival, taking place November 20-25.
“I’m not Jewish and I’m not European,” Martel admits, though he spent his formative years attending a British school in France. “So my link to the Holocaust is as a complete outsider.”
A descendant of a Canadian family rooted in Quebec, his parents briefly moved to Spain where he was born. “I have no personal experience, no familial experience, no genetic experience at all with the great tragedy [of the Holocaust], the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.”
Yet Martel says he has been profoundly affected by the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jewish people.
While a child studying history in school, he found that war was comprehensible, whereas the Holocaust was not. Even though war is violent and tragic, “the idea of having an enemy whom you must fight makes sense,” suggests Martel. However, the dynamics of the Holocaust – equally as violent as war – did not make sense to him.
According to Martel, “In war you have an enemy and you go to war against your enemy. The Holocaust seemed to be, you take your friend and you shoot him.”
The Holocaust, relates Martel, “stayed in my memory as a historical oddity.”
He studied the Holocaust in greater depth, first reading historical works and then literature, watched Hollywood films and European documentaries and, as an adult, visited Auschwitz and Yad Vashem.
Eventually, after the success of Life of Pi, he decided he wanted to write about the Holocaust, but in his own way – through the lens of fiction.
Martel defends the use of fiction as a lasting and moving testimony to relating the horrors of the Holocaust.
In Beatrice and Virgil, he employs many literary devices to tell his story, in part because of the seven years he took to complete the novel. In fact, how Martel came to write the book, and how it took the shape that it did, is a story in itself.
Beatrice and Virgil began as a two-act play – that, by Martel’s own admission, did not work – featuring characters with these names from which he took fragments to use in his novel.
He then added a second layer featuring a taxidermist, because taxidermists give the appearance of life to deceased animals, and a main character, Henry, through whom he intentionally chose to evoke positive Jewish stereotypes.
Martel “constructed Henry to resemble Jewish life in Germany.”
Henry plays the clarinet, a “very Jewish instrument” because of its use in klezmer music. He is also a writer, like many Jews were in modern Europe.
Beatrice and Virgil became a story about a writer who meets a taxidermist and together, in a sense, they meet the Holocaust. Martel deals with the Holocaust in a “nonliteral and nonhistorical” fashion compared to other books that express the tragedy.
Just as in Life of Pi, Martel features animals as metaphors. However, in Beatrice and Virgil, a story far darker in tone and story line, the significant difference is his application of his metaphors to the Holocaust, in this case, two stuffed animals – Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a monkey.
As an outsider to the events of the Holocaust and not a writer of realistic fiction, Martel prefers to rely on imagination. He chose the animal allegory – specifically talking animals – as a literary device “to signal to the reader that this is not a work that attempts historical realism.” Instead, he asserts, Beatrice and Virgil “is clearly a literary story that tries to use the tools of literature to discuss the calamity that befell the Jews of Europe.”
The title characters are named in reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which, explains Martel, “Dante has lost his way and the only way he can get back to the straight way is by being guided through hell, purgatory and heaven, and his guide through hell and purgatory is the Roman poet Virgil”; his guide through paradise is Beatrice, whom to Dante was “a symbol of purity.”
Martel chose these names for his characters because his book “is a drama, and as in any drama we need guides; we need guides to guide us through it.” His reference to Dante’s work further signalled his allegorical intent.
The Holocaust is often spoken of as an unspeakable tragedy. Yet, Martel asserts, “tragedy is a literary term, not a historical term.” It is a Greek device. “In a tragedy, there is always the idea that if something had been different, [the outcome] could have been better.”
Because the literary devices of character and suspense were difficult to use in a Holocaust novel, Martel employed the technique of animal allegory. It is a take on the Holocaust that, he acknowledges, will intrigue some readers, amuse others and turn off many, particularly Holocaust survivors.
“People who have been there don’t need metaphor and allegory,” he concedes.
But Martel believes that they are needed by those who did not experience the Holocaust.
In writing his fictional work, Martel believes that the Holocaust needs to be seen through art as well as history, because works of art last longer than works of history, and that there is a timelessness to art and fiction that is absent in nonfiction. When challenged about the relevance of fiction if readers lack understanding of the actual events – a concern in many countries today – Martel concedes “you won’t get an allegory if you don’t know what it’s based on.” In other words, knowledge of history, particularly of the Holocaust, is a prerequisite to reading such fictional works as Beatrice and Virgil.
Just as George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory of Stalin’s Russia, Martel uses animals to describe Hitler’s horrors perpetrated against the Jews. But in a book on the Holocaust, the reader knows the tragic conclusion. “You have to learn Russian history and then you can read Animal Farm and it will make more sense than if you just read it on its own.”
Martel acknowledges that the same is true for the Holocaust. Knowledge is necessary. “Teach the history, and then the artful approaches to it.” Indeed, learning about the Shoah requires appropriate historical study. In defending his literary approach in Beatrice and Virgil, Martel asserts that “art is an interpretation, but before you interpret it you have to know what happened.”