Beatrice and Virgil, the latest novel by Yann Martel, reduces the evils of the Nazi regime to the realm of the tired, self-satisfied cliche and in doing so exposes its author's graceless cynicism, writes Sam Munson. Yann Martel published his first novel, Life of Pi, almost a decade ago. A quasi-religious parable, Martel's Booker-winning debut purports to recount its titular character's miraculous survival of a shipwreck that left him alone in a boat with a tiger. This story ultimately proves to be a fable, an allegory meant to heal real trauma. Martel's book garnered tremendous international acclaim, did a significant business all over the world, and stirred up a serious charge of plagiarism ultimately settled out of court. A rather fable-like tale in itself, and one that no doubt left large segments of both the publishing industry and the reading public waiting for his next work. Now, at last, we have to hand Martel's second novel, another Aesopian construction, bearing the heavily fraught title Beatrice and Virgil. The book memorialises the crimes of Germany's National Socialist regime and, at the same time, dramatises literature's long-standing difficulty in addressing them - though not, perhaps, in the ways Martel intended.
Beatrice and Virgil does not move far from the compositional path charted in Life of Pi: the book comprises the adventures of a world-famous writer, Henry L'Hote, as he encounters something more serious than will easily suffer expression through animal fabulism. This contact with a reality rather grimmer than his art will admit comes in the form of a taxidermist, also called, with leaden moral obviousness, Henry, and a surreal play this second Henry is writing, a play about a donkey and a monkey (the titular Beatrice and Virgil, respectively) involved in a long oblique discussion of some tremendous crime, a discussion set in the country of Shirt, a petit-Beckettian landscape, with lone trees, large expanses of nothing, and a series of highly symbolic stripes laid out on the earth (just like, you see, the stripes of a prisoner's shirt).
Martel intends for this crime, this trauma, in which both Beatrice and Virgil have suffered, to be a symbolic stand-in for the Holocaust. Henry Two (whom we are led to think until the book's final pages is a camp survivor) turns out to be a former Nazi attempting to expiate himself through art. Henry Two perishes in a fire that destroys his taxidermy shop, mere minutes after stabbing Henry One; as Henry One recovers in his hospital bed he discovers that his artistic powers have returned, and he, the narrator blithely informs us, goes on to finish his second novel - but not before producing a short, metafictional exercise, comprising a series of brutal and maudlin ethical conundrums (Would you, Henry One wants to know, stand on your own daughter's corpse to reach more breathable air?) also drawn, as every reader will resignedly note, from the moral universe of the camps.
Martel's prose closely fits the plot outlined above, composed as it is of cliché, indifferent, vague description, an air of tired serviceableness, devoid of all ideation: "The waiter brought over the menus and explained the fancy specials of the day"; "with so many flammable chemicals, the store burned quick and hard. A howling inferno. With the taxidermist in it." This prose leaves Beatrice and Virgil well outside the realm of texts to which the name literature can be applied. It also does a crippling disservice to the subject Martel has chosen. And his formal games - the coy mirroring of protagonist and antagonist, the play-within-the-novel and all its dramatic appurtenances - only amplify and complicate the nature of this disservice. And further reveal his failings as an artist, to boot: many dundering stylists have written about the Holocaust and its vast penumbra. But few have done so with such preening self-admiration, and none to my knowledge with so clear and deadly a gap between the reality of his gifts and his high estimation of them.
For all that Martel lacks, he does possess at least the cynicism of a virtuoso. Beatrice and Virgil, even more so than its direct literary ancestor Everything Is Illuminated (our era's primer for calculated literary bathos), attempts to reduce the radical evil of the Hitlerian regime, a nearly-ineffable subject, to a series of tear-stained pseudoprofundities, accompanied by a structural gamesmanship aimed not so much at testing the boundaries of novelistic form as excusing its initiator from the massive responsibilities this subject entails. Indeed, by allowing two animals to speak for him on the most difficult and fraught points within the compass of the novel, Martel distances himself from the reductionism and falsity that penetrate Beatrice and Virgil to its core.
The book has come in, by now, for heavy criticism from numerous sources. It is clear - and this is not said without some relief - that Beatrice and Virgil is no critical success, whatever its sales might be. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian have all seem to agree that Martel's second novel is dull, pretentious, fundamentally misconceived. It is ordinary, in the case of books like Martel's, trite books on historical tragedy, for champions defend them in print and viva voce, for their desert-like, despair-inducing emptiness to be celebrated as literary and spiritual plenitude. This has, so far, not happened for Martel.
Why? One hopes that it is not merely because he has written a very bad book; or even that he has attempted to instil it with a moral seriousness by making the Holocaust its subject. Serious readers will note that he has used any number of the leadenly executed formal games that certain writers take up when they venture out of their moral depth; one hopes that this, specifically, is the source of the animus directed against Martel, and a sign that such fumbling will no longer be tolerated and fostered. Indeed, there is quite an obvious reference of the kind just mentioned, one that appears towards the end of Beatrice and Virgill. Henry Two talks about "short plays where every word, every single word, would be qualified by sic, because every word, in light of the Horrors, is now erroneous. There's a Hungarian writer who writes like that, in a way."
The Horrors is Henry Two's half-clever and inadequate periphrasis for Holocaust; this unnamed writer is, it seems likely, the Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, whose stark, slender, allusive, novels constitute one of the most important - if not the most important - acts of witness in modern literature. Martel couches Henry's description as praise, along the now-banal lines first suggested by Theodor Adorno: that only falsehood is possible after the moral singularity of Auschwitz. The work of the "Hungarian writer", Martel suggests, masterfully enacts the unspeakability of its own subject - an effect that a lesser artist might seek to imitate with the rubber stamp of the editor's sic.
This is, as a description of Kertész's method, insultingly inaccurate in what it omits. But for Martel to allude to Kertész at all in this context is an insult to the sufferings Kertész endured and went on to bring, painfully and with unspeakable honesty, into his art. It is a transparent grab for aesthetic legitimacy through that trustworthiest of means, the name-drop (or allusion, as a Modernist might call it). This is perhaps the most cynical ploy in a work thick with them: There is no writer more capable than Kertész of confronting, with his insistence on reality, the stony, monstrous face of historical tragedy. A visage that Martel (and many, many others) can only address through jejune, winsome-sinister puppetry. Small wonder that he appends, to the work of talents greater than his own, that treasonous sic. And this sic, sad though it is to note, remains the sign under which English speakers, as a culture, write books on historical tragedy. It is as ubiquitous as it is treasonous - I could append a list of names here that would stretch on for pages. And it is as enduring, it comes increasingly to seem, as its mortal enemy, true memory, exact recollection, the dangerous marvels of real art.
Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review. His first novel, The November Criminals, was published last month