Beasts in the Jungle

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May 6, 2010

In The Life of Pi, a man survives for a number of months on a lifeboat with a large, hungry tiger as his only companion. In spite of this apparently preposterous situation, Yann Martel managed to create a provocative and convincing narrative that won him the Mann Booker Prize for fiction. In his new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, Martel has taken on another tiger, this time the Holocaust — a vexed subject that has frustrated the earnest attempts of many other novelists.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno suggested that to write poetry after Auschwitz was “barbaric.” Although Adorno later disavowed the absoluteness of his original assertion, students of the Holocaust have continued to invoke it. Ever since I can remember, the “proper” way to discuss the Holocaust has been historically and factually, or through oral testimonies and memoirs. To do anything other than let the survivors speak for themselves is considered an affront to their memories and experiences. This sanctification of survivor memory has led a handful of writers to write “memoirs” that turned out to be fiction. Two examples are Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments and Helen Darville’s The Demidenko File, works of fiction originally presented successfully as fact-based narratives. When they were revealed to be “made up,” they were unceremoniously withdrawn from book stores.

Two works that became enormously popular successes — the film version of Schindler’s List (1993) and the execrable TV mini-series Holocaust) (1978) — have had an impact on the American, and indeed the worldwide understanding of the Holocaust, even though they have both been criticized as Hollywood kitsch. When shown in Germany a year or two after it appeared on American television, the earlier of these treatments led to an open discussion of the Shoah, and changed the way Germans viewed not only themselves, but also their history. So it is possible for even “bad” fiction to have an outsized impact that isn’t altogether negative.

At any rate, it is within this murky set of issues that Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil appears. Already the recipient of a negative review in the New York Times, Martel’s novel nonetheless deserves to be taken seriously. First of all, what is it about? This is a question the fictional “author” of the book, Henry, has a hard time explaining. Suffice it to say that in fewer than 200 pages, the book’s events are (in part) as follows: the family dog contracts rabies and attacks and kills the family cat; Henry joins an amateur play group; Henry is mailed a portion of a play written by a taxidermist, who might or might not be a Nazi and who might or might not be writing about the Holocaust; we are introduced to a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil; these animals, among other things, witness women drowning their babies and then themselves; Henry’s wife becomes pregnant and then gives birth to a son; we are introduced to the concept “Games for Gustav,” which includes such gems as “you can get better air if you step on your dead daughter’s head; do you do it?”; the attempted murder of Henry by the taxidermist, who may or may not be a Nazi, who was writing a play set on a shirt, starring a donkey and a howler monkey; the suicide of the taxidermist by fire.

Like the New York Times review, I’m not so sure that the book itself is all that good. It’s clearly a bit of a mess, with a play within a story surrounded by a pseudo-autobiographical frame where the author, represented by his fictional counterpart, goes up against the publishing machine with his new book, which is part historical essay and part fictional account of the Holocaust. The dubious addition of trying to publish it as a “flip book” seems unnecessary to me, but it does drive home the point that we are rarely, if ever, asked to exercise our imaginations about the Holocaust. In an early moment in the story, Henry muses:

“People don’t so rigorously separate the imaginative from the rational in their thinking and in their actions. There are truths and there are lies — these are the transcendent categories, in books as in life. The useful division is between the fiction and the non-fiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and the non-fiction that utters lies.”

It would be in this niche that the works of Wilkomirski and Darville slot themselves: powerful, evocative works that are real, and yet are still fiction. When read as an attempt to storm this niche, Martel’s novel is much more powerful than its messiness might otherwise indicate. Assuming that we associate Henry with Yann (and I do), we begin our journey with him railing against the unstated but nonetheless enforced forms of acceptable representations of the Holocaust in the modern world:

“More specifically, Henry’s double book was about the ways in which that event was represented in stories. Henry had noticed over years of reading books and watching movies how little actual fiction there was about the Holocaust. The usual take on the event was nearly always historical, factual, documentary, anecdotal, testimonial, literal.”

Driving the point home further, Henry ponders the difference between representations of the Holocaust and representations of war: “Whereas war — to take another cataclysmic human event — was constantly being turned into something else. War was forever being trivialized, that is, made less than it truly is… Has any veterans group ever made the complaint? No, because that’s just how we talk about war, in many ways and for many purposes. With these diverse representations, we come to understand what war means to us. The belief was, Henry concluded, that with these diverse representations of war, a core reality that lay beyond any single tone or depiction was better explored.”

And further, that:

“No such poetic license was take with — or given too — the Holocaust. That terrifying event was overwhelmingly represented by a single school: historical realism. The story, always the same story, was always framed by the same dates, set in the same places, featuring the same cast of characters… And so Henry came to wonder: why this suspicion of the imagination, why the resistance to artful metaphor? A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real.” So what is the difference between what is “real” and what is “true” in the imaginary world of the Holocaust? If we are, as Martel suggests, “story animals,” why are we willing to let writers fictionalize war, which often has staggering casualties, but not the Holocaust?

Henry’s American bookseller suggests, in part: “Essays are a drag … Especially if you’re taking on a sacred cow like the Holocaust. Every few seasons a Holocaust book comes out that bangs on the heart chords…and goes planetary, but for every one of those there’s crates of others that end up being pulped. And with your approach — and I don’t just mean the flip book thing — I also mean this idea you have where we’re supposed to throw our whole imagination at the Holocaust — Holocaust westerns, Holocaust science fictions, Holocaust Jamaican bobsled team comedies — I mean where is this going?”

While the bookseller is asking a good question, I’m not in any way suggesting that maintaining the status quo is the right answer. Henry has a different problem:

“My book is about representations of the Holocaust. The event is gone; we are left with stories about it. My book is about a new choice of stories. With a historical event, we not only have to bear witness, that is, tell what happened and address the needs of the ghosts. We also have to interpret and conclude, so that the needs of people today, the children of ghosts, can be addressed. In addition to the knowledge of history, we need the understanding of art. Stories identify, unify, give meaning to.”

Almost in spite of himself, Henry carries this belief in stories through the messy part of the novel, the part with the second Henry, who is the literalist taxidermist writing a play starring a howler monkey and a donkey. Presumably, according to Henry the first’s cosmogony, the donkey and the howler monkey (Beatrice and Virgil, who are far more reminiscent of Beckett than of Dante) could star in their own Holocaust play, and do it effectively. The question is how to “[talk] about memory,” how to talk about what happened to them. It’s an issue they come back to again and again.

“Virgil: To talk-about so that we might live-with — I presume that’s why we want to do this?

Beatrice: Yes. To remember and yet to go on living.”

Of course, the taxidermist also says:

My story has no story.
It rests on nothing but the fact of murder.

And then the taxidermist, who is too literal to create what Henry probably could have managed to create with his play, had he been willing to help him, stabs Henry and then destroys himself in a fire. It’s not for nothing that our Henry thinks the taxidermist was probably a Nazi. But by the end of Martel’s novel, Henry is able to write fiction again: he creates a piece of the play that the taxidermist couldn’t imagine.

In the final analysis, we have to be willing to start writing stories so that the events of the Holocaust don’t own us. While I’m wiling to concede that it may not be possible to understand what happened, I suspect it is possible to have some comprehension of the horror if we encounter it via a story where we have come to care for a character who is later a victim of it. We do it with other events: wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. We do it with rape and assault victims, and other victims of violent crimes. Let’s learn from them how to make fiction from our pain, just like other writers made fiction from theirs. (Can we imagine World War I any longer without the stories of Hemingway? The poetry of Sassoon and Owens?)

Let’s create fiction to help us feel the pain vicariously so as not to leave ourselves in a position where history repeats itself, because the history books didn’t give us enough information on what’s problematic and horrifying about the Holocaust. Let’s stop being slaves to literalism when what’s literal is the thing that the Nazis left us: facts and figures, and lists of stolen art.

When we’re numbed by the bodies in mass graves, and struck indifferent to piles of shoes and glasses, let’s have a story to remind us of what’s important: the lives that were destroyed because of hate run rampant.

And you know what? If it’s told by a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice that’s okay too. As Henry says, “Let’s have Holocaust fictions, plays, stories, and science fiction.” Because we are people of the story and it’s killing us by slow strangulation not to be able to tell the story of the civilian victims of World War II.

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