Not many people had heard of Yann Martel, the implausibly named Canadian novelist, before he won the 2002 Man Booker Prize for an implausible tale about an Indian boy marooned in a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger travelling under the name of Richard Parker. But the tale rippled and flowed, the prose glittered and glowed, and Life of Pi romped on to be the great popular success most literary-prize-winning novels are not. Martel was also unusual in his readiness to talk straight to his readers. Asked “why do you write?” or “what does your novel mean?”, he would do his best to tell you. From an interview the day after he’d won the Booker: “I write simple books and I view my readers as my equals. In a novel you must amuse as you elevate.” From an American coast-to-coast a month later: “the idea of a religious boy in a lifeboat with a wild animal struck me as a perfect metaphor for the human condition. Humans aspire to really high things … like religion, justice, democracy. At the same time, we’re rooted in our human, animal condition. And so, all of those brought together in a lifeboat struck me as being … a perfect metaphor.”
This was a man who was not afraid of big themes and who also understood the electric power of metaphor. In the flurry attending sudden celebrity he had been accused of plagiarising a novella by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar (where do these names come from?) about a boy and a predatory feline on a boat. Martel acknowledged his debt to Scliar for “the premise”, but protested that the governing metaphors were “totally different … His is set … in 1933. It’s a Jew. It’s a black panther. It’s clearly an allegory of the Holocaust. Mine is … more about religion, faith, storytelling.” But Scliar had set more than one hare running. The day after the Booker win Martel confided to the Guardian that he was contemplating his own ‘Holocaust novel’: about “a monkey and a donkey travelling a country – a real country, like what we have here, with trees and people and rain – but it’s also a huge shirt … It’ll become obvious that it’s the shirt of a Jew during the Nazi era.” This time, the big question would not concern the mystery of faith, but how humans understand evil.
The Holocaust as literary topic is stuck all over with “Do Not Enter” signs. Martel was ready to defy those signs because he believed that fidelity to “historical realism” was killing the imaginative pull of the Holocaust: “we clothe the Holocaust in very old clothing. We always see the Holocaust in terms of black-and-white images, barking Germans, cowering Jews. We know very well-known fixed places like Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, and Belzec … We very rarely have the Holocaust live in the terms of today. And I think that’s a problem, because it becomes ancient history.” He wanted ‘the Holocaust’ to spring to new life in readers’ minds just as he had made stained old ideas about the evolution of human intelligence, the human passion to dominate and the imperishable allure of nature to our soiled human spirits burst into flower on Pi’s imaginary lifeboat. So he set about writing a book or, rather, two books: one a fable about the Holocaust, the other an essay justifying the liberties he was taking. He imagined the two bound together upside down and end-to-end as a “flip-book”: a material metaphor of their necessary interdependence. By November 2007 Martel was talking happily to Tasha Robinson about the Holocaust project, now, thankfully, nearly complete. The five years of research and writing he had given Life of Pi had been “just a joy, a joy to explore the behaviour of wild animals, to explore the transcendental, to see how people have suffered in shipwrecks and what they have done to get by. And it all came together; all the bits sit together very well. They snapped into place like puzzle pieces.” By contrast (and as he had predicted five years before) researching the Holocaust had been a tedious business. “Over and over, you hear the date 1933, you hear the name Adolf Hitler, you read the word Berlin, you hear the word Auschwitz, you hear the rumbling of trains. The narrative arc is ceaselessly the same. It really does become like a narrow corridor where you have no choice but to go down it.” Martel had baulked. Why? “The point I make in my essay is that I am not so much interested in the Holocaust itself … As soon as a historical event has passed – and it’s passed the second it’s gone by – what we are left with are our representations of it. And in the essay, I discuss how the nearly singular representation of the Holocaust is always in the same mode, and that mode is historical realism and social realism. We don’t allow other, more metaphorical representations of the Holocaust … History has to become story, and the Holocaust hasn’t. I discuss that in the essay, and then in the novel, I try to do a non-historical representational take on the Holocaust. It’s a story featuring a monkey and a donkey, and it’s set on a shirt …”
And then – if we believe the story told in the novel I hold in my hands – Martel’s stick-in-the-mud publishers threw out his lovely flip-book-essay-and-fable idea, and only furious redrafting delivered us safely inside the pages of Beatrice and Virgil, ready to be enmeshed in a narrative about a prize-winning young novelist stopped in his writing tracks by stick-in-the-mud publishers who reject his flip-book on the Holocaust … The now ex-writer is filling his time with high-toned amateur theatricals, working in a free-trade coffee-shop, learning the clarinet and communing with his pet cat and dog when he is sought out by a weird old taxidermist seeking help to complete a play. The play is about a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice. The taxidermist has the stuffed animals in his workshop; now he wants to make them speak. And as they speak – as we workshop the play together – we discover that the animals have been beaten, tortured, starved; that they are terrified of the humans around them. Struggling to find a word to comprehend the assaults inflicted on them, they agree on the term “the Horrors”.
When I first met the taxidermist, shuffling his papers, his knives and his gluepots in his museum of death, I was afraid he might be The Historian, but of course he is The Nazi. (His shop is helpfully numbered “1933”; we always know where we are in this text because the identifiers are scattered so thickly.) His motives remain, at least to me, obscure, but he is certainly not repentant. Maybe he is seeking aesthetic closure through the perfecting of his play, just as he had restored the physical forms of Beatrice and Virgil from the ruins he had made of them when they were alive.
So there we sit, co-opted as audience as The Writer and The Nazi work on the script, rummage through the metaphor box, and dig out vaguely familiar fragments (a striped shirt, a red cloth) from the costume box; they shake phrases out, dust them off, and slide them into place in the evolving tale of Beatrice and Virgil.
I have to confess I was a bad audience because I had already been antagonised by Martel’s extraordinary claims regarding “Holocaust representations”. “The nearly singular representation of the Holocaust”? What had he been reading for those five years? Not Paul Célan, Wislawa Szymborska, Aharon Appelfeld, Anne Michaels or a dozen dozen others. And what does he mean by “social realism”? That humans are puppets of “social forces”? Primo Levi (whom he has read) showed us all those years ago, in tender detail, how differently different individuals responded to the systematic denial of their humanity. As for the static aridity of “historical realism”: it is only now that the processes of Nazi on-the-ground thinking and action are being exposed through passionate, immaculate research – research that admits the rest of us into the hothouse politics of ambitious men handed absolute power over thousands of their fellow humans. We now know the stories particular Nazis were telling themselves during their murderous exertions in Poland and elsewhere: what they saw as their choices, and the choices they made. This great act of retrieval reveals to me actualities I would never have dreamt of. One example only: Christopher Browning’s recent work persuades me that the local Nazis’ decision to kill all Jews still alive in occupied Poland, including those valuable to the war effort, was taken easily, almost casually – an administrative squabble, a bothersome political contest, resolved. Here is the “banality of evil” in documented action. (The novelist Jonathan Littell made luminous use of those researches in his The Kindly Ones – before he had his Nazi antihero strip off and dive into a vat of orgiastic melodrama.)
“Holocaust writings” do not read to me as if they come out of some dead past, but are drenched with a terrible urgency. Humans have been killing their fellow humans for all manner of reasons and for a very long time, and literary art has been probing those reasons and tracing their consequences from The Iliad through Slaughterhouse-Five to now. The Nazi program of mass killings of civilians was sustained over years in countries at internal peace, where the killers sometimes knew their victims, and this sprang not from a contest over scarce resources but from an individual’s arbitrary decision to deny human status to a category of persons based on a spurious biological classification. The great question was and remains: how was that immense denial engineered – or does it not need explanation? Is it somehow ‘natural’ to our species? The question has been explored by various historians through close analysis of particular episodes of Nazi or Nazi-inspired killings (Jan Gross’s Neighbors, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men) but it also animates the work of writers who make the clean leap to art in intensely political ?ctions such as Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K, and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, as well as in less obviously political ones, such as David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life. I sometimes feel that every great novel, perhaps every human encounter, is in some sense ‘about’ the Holocaust (and Rwanda and My Lai and all deliberate killings of terrified non-combatants) because these are about the hope, and the denial, of trust between humans. We do not need “a Holocaust story” to tell a Holocaust story.
Martel would say my response is due to my age: that my childhood was darkened by dread of “the Nazis” and my adulthood by seeping revelations of the justice of that dread, but that nowadays, with horrors piling, distractions fountaining and attention-spans shrinking, we need to turn away from past actuality and its grim metaphors to new metaphors and a new-minted fable. I think that is why he chooses to make the pivotal concept of Beatrice and Virgil – the “bridge” metaphor that is meant to connect current moral thinking back to the Holocaust and so revitalise it – humanity’s ‘inhumanity’ towards animals. Beatrice and Virgil are doubly tormented because as animals they are innocent, incapable of deliberate cruelty. The metaphor is reiterated in a scene (lifted holus-bolus from Flaubert) in which stags huddling in a ravine fall to the arrows of a blood-drunk hunter. Setting and action evoke Babi Yar, but the analogy fails because Martel’s stags do not comprehend their fate. One of the pleasures of Life of Pi was that the human/nature distinction was so cleanly drawn. “Richard Parker” was not a person – a bundle of memories, obligations, aspirations, regrets – but a creature whose grace was his freedom from memory and morality: the lifeboat beached, he leaps away from his soulful human ‘master’ to get on with being a Royal Bengal tiger. Does it really add poignancy to our understanding of the Holocaust or the Horrors or whatever epithet we choose for these events that creatures incapable of reflection are forced through unintelligible suffering? The scandal of Babi Yar is that humans were herded, bullied, stripped and killed by fellow humans: humans who used language and psychological manipulation as well as blows to direct their victims, yet who were able, in the face of their pleas, their terror, the desperate evidence of their naked humanity, to deny that humanity.
Meanwhile others, including victims, continued to affirm it. I have access to the thoughts of a man stumbling along on a march that would end with him being beaten to death by his guards, because the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti continued to make poems as he marched. I therefore know that he thought about summer fruits, his garden, his girl – destroyed now, but still yearned for. I know he still cared about time (he scrupulously dated his poems), that with hope gone he continued to hope, that despite what he had experienced he still trusted his fellow humans: the last line of ‘Forced March’ (he has fallen; if he doesn’t get up he’ll be shot) is “Don’t walk past me, friend. Yell, and I’ll stand up again.” That is the core mystery of the Holocaust, and side-trips into humankind’s multiple cruelties to animals cannot illuminate it.
This art created out of suffering tells me many things I otherwise could not know: things that are, in my view, useful knowledge – possibly the most useful knowledge there is, though I would like to know what Radnóti’s guards dreamt and hoped for, too. Martel wants to provide what he believes to be equally useful knowledge, but his ‘knowledge’ comes out of his own supple imaginings and his writer’s ambition to coin new metaphors to captivate his readers’ imaginations. He also trusts in our good hearts. He hoped we would be disarmed by the confidences of naive, eager, idea-entranced Pi, and we were. In his two earlier books (which, he ruefully remembers, “sank without a trace”) he drew on the adjacent strategy of engaging the reader in a young writer’s creative problems. With Beatrice and Virgil the recruitment strategy is explicit, and this time it fails. In the extravagant pre-publicity campaigns by the author and his several publishers we were repeatedly told that Beatrice and Virgil is the Holocaust’s Animal Farm. But Animal Farm was the distillation of a deeply political man’s intense engagement with the politics of his time. This laborious process of fabrication (briskly terminated by a mini-Götterdämmerung) is a long way from Orwell’s highwire act of imagination. As I read Martel’s slow-motion construction of his fable, I am haunted by an image from another timeless tale: Icarus, launched on his homemade wings, face lifted towards the sun, flapping hopefully.
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