Here is the full review, before it was cut for space by the Observer (30 May 2010)
Historians and scholars have long debated the relationship of art to the Holocaust, a debate referred to in shorthand as “the limits of representation,” which asks: does the sheer scale of the Holocaust mean that any attempt always risks trivializing or oversimplifying it, reducing the horror to a story that can be read, put away and forgotten? Can the Holocaust adequately be represented? Henry, the protagonist of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, the follow-up to his prize-winning 2002 The Life of Pi, is a writer who decides to challenge the fact that no “poetic license was taken with—or given to—the Holocaust,” and represent its evil and suffering in a new way.
Henry bears a striking resemblance to his author: like Martel, Henry’s second novel, a charming, poignant tale of the humanity of animals, was an unexpected success, bringing prizes and fame. For five years Henry has labored on his next project, a “flip book” that combines Holocaust novel with Holocaust essay, representing the catastrophe in, he fondly believes, an original way. Henry’s publishers deem the book itself catastrophic, and Henry staggers off into writer’s block and self-pity. He and his wife, Sarah, move to some interchangeable cosmopolitan city--“Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin”—where Henry amuses himself by waiting tables at a fair trade café, playing the clarinet and acting in amateur theatricals.
One day Henry receives a package in the mail, with a letter and Flaubert’s story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” a fable about a boy whose greatest pleasure is killing animals. If you don’t know Flaubert’s story, never fear: Martel devotes 15 pages to summarizing and quoting long passages of it. He also explains that “hospitator” means, basically, host; at book’s end we learn that Henry’s surname is L’Hôte. The package also includes part of a play about two characters named Beatrice and Virgil, standing in a road, by a tree, trading cryptic epigrams. The first excerpt consists of their efforts to describe a pear; later they debate what to do next (“We should go, then? / We should”) and offer sophomoric philosophizing about something they call the Horrors: “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through? It’s incomprehensible.” Not nearly as incomprehensible as the clumsiness of this from a writer capable of Martel’s grace.
The letter writer just happens to live in the same city as Henry (though no one knows that Henry moved there). A taxidermist, he also just happens to be named Henry. (Flaubert and Beckett, meet Mr Dostoevsky.) Beatrice, in fact, is a stuffed donkey, Virgil a stuffed monkey on her back (see what he did there?); they are the taxidermist’s “guide to hell.” Martel thoughtfully helps out readers struggling with all this literary virtuosity: “Hell? What hell? Henry wondered. But at least now he understood the connection to The Divine Comedy. Dante is guided through inferno and purgatory by Virgil and then through paradise by Beatrice.”
Like the reader who needs help understanding Martel’s allusions, Henry the taxidermist needs help writing his play, A 20th-Century Shirt (Beatrice and Virgil are living on a striped shirt. Don’t ask) and writer Henry inexplicably agrees to assist. The result is a book by turns pretentious, humorless, tedious, and obvious. All of the characters are there to be manipulated: Henry is endlessly blind to the evident, while all the other characters are cardboard cutouts propped around the novel: his wife, Sarah, might better have been named Henry’s Pregnant Wife, as she is otherwise a gesture. Even less credible is the sinister taxidermist Henry, who is meant to be menacing but whose only real threat comes from the possibility that he might bore the reader to death.
Taxidermist Henry reads ersatz-Beckett out loud for pages at a time, or pontificates on the fate of animals and the ethics of taxidermy; otherwise he is a cipher until the end, when he suddenly provides the novel some much-needed but quite unbelievable action. Host Henry delivers wooden, overwritten speeches ("I noticed that a donkey has an appealing terrestrial solidity--it's a good, solid animal--yet its limbs are surprisingly slim. It's as firm yet lithely connected to the earth as a birch tree”) and explains Martel’s allusions to the reader.
Attempting to manage the problems he has created in trying to mix allegory, psychology, metafiction, mystery and a parable about the Holocaust (not to mention our inhumanity to animals) in under 200 pages, Martel also makes Henry explain the book’s flaws: “There seemed to be essentially no action and no plot in it. Just two characters by a tree talking. It had worked with Beckett and Diderot. Mind you, those two were crafty and they packed a lot of action into the apparent inaction. But inaction wasn’t working for the author of A 20th-Century Shirt.” No kidding.
“About what happens in the play,” Henry tells Henry, “in effect what happens is they talk about talk.” This means that in effect what happens in the novel is they talk about a play in which what happens is they talk about talk, and they talk about silence, and they talk about horror, and they talk about the unrepresentable. Then a few bad things happens from which we are entirely insulated by all of the talk, all of the silence, all of the abstraction, and the fact that this is a taxidermist we don’t like narrating a play about a stuffed monkey and donkey to a protagonist whose total solipsism insulates us even further from caring about any of it.
At the end, author Henry develops some “games,” twelve brief questions posing to the reader the kind of moral quandaries William Styron so successfully dramatized in Sophie’s Choice: would you allow your son to endanger his life to try to save the rest of the family? If you knew people were about to be killed and you couldn’t stop it, would you warn them? If only Martel had bothered to dramatize any of these dilemmas, and think through the answers rather than abdicating responsibility to the reader, he might have produced a novel that didn’t show the limits of representation quite so painfully.
© Copyright 2010 Sarah Churchwell. Do not reproduce without prior written permission.