It’s been almost nine years now since Life of Pi turned Yann Martel into the most famous male Canadian author in the world. A head-scratching combination of dense religious allegory, zoological lore and enthralling adventure tale, written with warmth and grace, Pi hit the sweet spot with English-language readers, capturing the 2002 Booker prize and going on to sell seven million copies. Hardly prolific before—one novel and a short-story collection during the 1990s—Martel, 46, has spent the decade since as a literary celebrity and somewhat enigmatic public intellectual, sparking a chattering-class storm by proclaiming Canada “the greatest hotel on earth,” and, since 2007, sending Prime Minister Stephen Harper two books a month (for fear our leader doesn’t read). And wrestling with his Holocaust “project” (his word), now finally in print with his just-released third novel, Beatrice & Virgil.
It was no easy task, as Martel cheerfully allows in an interview. He might as well admit it, of course, since the book centres around Henry L’Hôte, a very Martel-like writer—right down to his baby son, Theo (Martel began his interview by pulling out a photo of his eight-month-old boy, Theo). Henry is invited to lunch by his publishers; a celebration, he thinks, of the new book he is so proud of, a work in two parts: an allegorical novel of the Holocaust and an essay on why there is so little fiction about an event virtually always dealt with in ways “historical, factual, literal.” But lunch turns into “a firing squad,” as four editors, backed by a historian and a skeptical bookseller, spend the meal demolishing Henry’s “complete, unpublishable failure.”
“The real lunch was nowhere near as brutal,” laughs Martel, recalling his editors’ response to his identical proposal. “But they did convince me publishing the essay—which I have finished—with the novel would limit the ways readers could approach the novel. It would be telling them how they should read it, putting blinkers on their eyes.” Henry responds to the rejection by abandoning writing; just another author, Martel writes, silenced by the Holocaust. (Martel, made of sterner stuff, went back to work on the fictional part.)
Soon the bewildered Henry is approached by another writer, another Henry in fact, in case the underlying dualities aren’t clear enough. Henry II is a taxidermist with a stuffed donkey (Beatrice), a howler monkey (Virgil), and an allegorical play featuring the two animals. (Their names are those of Dante’s guides in his allegorical Divine Comedy—that “perfectly constructed, perfect work of art,” says Martel, who adds that here the animals function “as our guides through hell.”) The taxidermist wants the aid of Henry I in polishing his work. Baffled by the meaning behind the animals’ struggle to express the literally unspeakable horrors that have befallen them, but intrigued, Henry I offers practical advice. The play needs a little plot, a little action, if it’s going to work.
In real life, the elliptical, Waiting-for-Godot-like play was actually Martel’s first stab at non-traditional Holocaust depiction, and he had already followed his own advice. He fleshed out his philosophical take on Holocaust-induced aphasia with subtle interplay between the Henrys and a chilling subplot involving Henry I’s family pets. The dog Erasmus (after the tolerant Dutch—read Germanic—Reformation era philosopher) and the cat Mendelssohn (named not after composer Felix but his grandfather Moses, a leading figure in the 18th-century Jewish Enlightenment) get along fine. Until one day—in a sudden, shocking moment—they don’t. Rather like the two Henrys, as it turns out.
Martel’s central theme—the allegorical relationship of the Holocaust to the disaster humanity is currently wreaking on the natural world—is brilliantly conceived, however much the equivalency will enrage some readers. His success at it is another matter, perhaps best measured by the ending-after-the-ending supplied by Henry I, inspired by events to once again write. He adds Games for Gustav, the name given to a corpse discovered by the animals. The seventh of the 13 games is as representative as any: “Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter’s head?” The dilemma, however potently expressed, is no allegory of the author, but a brutal fact of Auschwitz’s transport trains. Even in the allegory of Beatrice & Virgil, the Holocaust’s scarifying details make realism—descriptions “historical, factual, literal”—rise to the fore.