Note: This piece was also written for a column sometime early last year, which did not take off.
As an event, the Holocaust is a literary well. And yet, it has not been looked into enough. So many of our pursuits that help us understand ourselves − movies, books, reports,
news− have gone into examining the exterior of this well. Therefore, our understanding of it is imaginatively lacking. Based on this premise, Martel presents his second book, Beatrice and Virgil, the book that peeps into the well.
Martel is the voice of Henry, the writer who insists that it is not enough to remember the historical reality of the Holocaust but to also aesthetically engage with it. To make sense of this mass illusion that descended on a section of the human race. Through Beatrice and Virgil, Martel tries to answer that most difficult and fundamental of questions: why?
Henry the author is a fictional equivalent of Martel. Henry is surprised when the novel he has written to fill a hole in himself hits the bull’s eye. It’s a novel that uses animal characters (a la Life of Pi) for alienation and delineation. Buoyed by such success, he pens a fiction and non-fiction piece each based on his theories of the Holocaust. Martel has indicated on his website to adding a layer of autobiographical resonance that adds authenticity to the voice of Henry. Unlike Martel, Henry the writer is confronted by general apathy of his editors in recognizing his point of view. In a moment of poetic epiphany, Henry the writer’s will to write leaves him.
What doesn’t leave him is the creative urge. After moving to an unnamed city with his wife, Henry starts acting, takes up playing the clarinet and works in a café. His wide range of fans continues to correspond with him. In the mail, one day he receives a cryptic story written by Flaubert and a note asking for help from a namesake in the same unnamed city. Henry, the writer is intrigued. He answers it perfunctorily but decides to deliver his reply in person. And inadvertently starts a creative collaboration with the taciturn Henry the taxidermist.
Henry the taxidermist is struggling with a Waiting for Godot-ish play of two characters, Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the howler monkey. Contrary to appearances, Henry the writer realises that Henry the taxidermist is trying to do that which he had set out to advice using its own unique and unconventional theatrical grammar.
A part of this grammar lies in choosing animal characters. Henry the writer and Martel use animals to talk about a human event because an animal is outside the moral universe of man and is not tainted by it. Therefore, it makes them exempt from its consequences and best suited to tell the story without bias.
Beatrice and Virgil is rich with connections. Writing about the Holocaust is like the play Henry the taxidermist writes; it is fragmented at best and incomplete at worst. The action of the event is contrasted with the inaction in the play. Characters don’t grow because the conflict is outside not inside them. Without being overtly stated, the events in the play makes the reader think about the Holocaust starting from details such as the description of a pear (how does one describe something to someone who has never seen it before?), the striped shirt (the infamous uniform of the camps), the mindless violence (when Virgil is tortured) to the very core of the play. The fragmentary and flawed and yet effective play turns out to be the essential and practical application of Henry the writer’s theories.
When the story nears its end, all that remains of the play is a few surviving dialogues and the memory of it. Martel seems to be asking, isn’t that how in the end the Holocaust survived in our midst?