Unconventional novel explores legacy of Holocaust

Yann Martel

By Patricia Corrigan, Special to the Jewish Light

Yann Martel, the author of the popular “Life of Pi,” spent six years researching and writing his next book. Though Martel’s stated intention was not to pen something controversial, one reviewer claimed that “Beatrice and Virgil” (Spiegel and Grau, $24) trivializes the Holocaust. Another called the book “a pioneeringly original and profoundly moving accomplishment;” a third declared it “perverse.”

“I never meant the book to be polemical,” says Martel, 47, speaking from a hotel in Alberta, Canada. “I believe we have to allow ourselves to approach historical events with the tools of literature, tools that allow us to go the heart of events and perhaps better understand them.”

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The Beatrice and Virgil of the title are taxidermied animals, a donkey and a howler monkey, respectively, and much of the book is set in a musty taxidermy shop in an unnamed city. In the Washington Post, a reviewer complimented Martel, writing, “His portrayal of Beatrice and Virgil struggling to invent some way to talk about horrors that defy language is evocative and potentially interesting.”

Martel notes, “That is absolutely what I tried to do. In general, most often the approach to the Holocaust is the same as after people see an accident. They go into witness mode, provide a documentary response to what they saw. I have no problem with those writings, but with the passage of time, we must comment using our imagination. We must speak using simile, metaphor, allegory. It is important to do that.”

Apart from the varied reactions from professional reviewers, Martel – who is not Jewish – has received a great deal of feedback from readers, many of them Jewish. “A lot of readers said they were fine with the book, even intrigued with it,” he says.

Martel was born in Spain and brought up in Paris. He lives in Saskatchewan, Canada, with his partner, writer Alice Kuipers, and their 15-month-old son. “In Paris as a kid, I went to a British school, where I was taught about the Holocaust. I remember being so struck by this. War makes sense to a kid. Any kid with siblings understands the idea of war in a small way. But this – the Holocaust – did not make sense. It stayed with me at a childishly intellectual level.” Later, after Martel read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the story “fleshed out” an emotional reaction that also stayed with him.

As a young man, when Martel backpacked through Poland, he visited Auschwitz, and returned twice in later years. “The first time, I learned that Auschwitz is something you bring to it,” he says. “I watched busloads of tourists come. I watched Koreans, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, get off the bus. They looked at Auschwitz blankly. The Americans and Europeans were overwhelmed by what they saw.”

The third time Martel visited Auschwitz, he spent two weeks in the area. “Most people’s encounters with the Holocaust there are intense, but the encounters are also very short. People have strong emotional reactions that day, and then move on the next day,” he says.

“After two weeks there, the emotional response fades, and you start to see a little Polish town with restaurants, cafes and a river, a town where people lived before Auschwitz. There is this great scar in the town, so at first you burst into tears. Then you get beyond that to have a more thoughtful, intellectual reaction. When you do, you have to ask what do we do with this?” You have to stop crying and think how did this happen? Why did this happen? What does it mean today, in 2010?”

Martel recalls noticing birds in the area, and bright green frogs near the ponds where the ashes of the victims’ remains were thrown. He remembers enjoying a pizza. He remembers being amazed that he could be in Auschwitz, eating a pizza that was really good.

During his session at the Jewish Book Festival, Martel will read from “Beatrice and Virgil” and then welcome questions. “I wrote this book to see what I could do as an artist born in 1963, not to ask what I can do about the Holocaust, or about what it means to me,” he says. “I am happy to meet people and to talk with them about the book – even those who didn’t like it.”

Yann Martel

WHO: Author of

“Beatrice and Virgil”


1 p.m. Friday,

Nov. 12