When Art Doesn't Live Up to its Goals
In Yann Martel’s novel Beatrice and Virgil, both art and evil are the focus, and the Holocaust the means to an end. Martel tries to examine the Holocaust and art’s responsibility for tackling it as a subject, its duty to keep the “essence” of genocide in the cultural memory, if not the facts and faces. The Holocaust, Martel argues through his main character, a writer’s-blocked author named Henry, is disappearing over our cultural horizon as those who survived it are dying off, and artists must find a way to use the Holocaust as a starting point to tell other stories, not rooted in fact but in new ways, in order to capture that essence for the next generation. Unfortunately, Martel’s book falls short of its own lofty goal.
The structure of Beatrice and Virgil is a framed story which provides its first weakness. The outer story and the story within battle one another more than inform one another, and the effect isn’t compelling. The outer layer is the story of Henry, a successful writer whose first book was an astounding success and who plans to follow-up that success with an audacious second book: a book that is half novel, half essay, two books in one that will argue that a new way of writing about the Holocaust is needed, one that would be the artist as witness, something in the vein of Orwell’s Animal Farm or Camus’ The Plague, something non-literal, something that would treat the Holocaust as starting point.
“Art as suitcase, light, portable and essential—was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe’s Jews?” It is unfortunate for Martel that he reminds us of Orwell’s and Camus’ success at encapsulating history: he sets himself up with a high standard he isn’t able to meet.
The two-part book, the novel/essay combo, the focus of Henry’s life for five years, is met with confusion and disinterest by his publisher. His book is rejected. Henry spins into a depression and stops writing. He and his wife move to a new city, in a post-modern thrust no specific city is mentioned, and they begin a new life.
Henry, no longer writing, dabbles at being a dilettante. He studies music and joins an amateur theater troop. He gets a job at a coffee shop not out of need but of want. He gets a dog. A cat. He responds to fan mail. One such piece of mail captures his attention: it includes an unkown story by Flaubert and pages from an play, something written by the fan. It concerns two characters discussing a pear. It has echoes of Beckett. Henry is intrigued.
The fan lives in the city where Henry lives. Henry decides to visit the fan’s address, to deliver the reply in person. This is the point where the novel devolves into a play within the novel, a play filled with overly obvious metaphors for the Holocaust, a play written in Beckett-like fashion. It is just enough like Beckett to make you wish you were reading Beckett, instead.
The fan turns out to be an elderly taxidermist. His play, the story of Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and howler monkey that live on a massive striped shirt, has been his life’s work. His taxidermist shop is filled with perfectly preserved animals, stagings so authentic they seem alive. Henry finds a man with an eye and passion for animals, an empathy and respect for the natural world mirrored by his distrust and disinterest in the human that has locked him into a solitary life for which his play is his only outlet.
Or is it? The taxidermist seems to have no interest in the play being viewed. The novel proceeds to move between Henry’s attempts to understand and break through the taxidermist’s emotionless exterior, to decipher the symbols and themes of the play, and the chagrin of his wife, befriend the elderly playwright. When she first meets him she gets into an argument with Henry about the taxidermist’s creepy nature. “Did you see the way he looked at me?” she questions Henry. Henry, oblivious or unwilling to see it, does not agree.
She is ultimately right. Unfortunately, her withering judgment ought to be applied to the very novel she inhabits. ‘Inhabits’, however, is too strong a word for role. She is but a whisper in the story. Henry’s wife, like all the other characters except for the taxidermist, barely register as characters. They would leave no marks on a bedsheet. She is a prop. Why is she so thinly constructed? Because the book doesn’t care for her. The book’s existence is clearly to decipher the play. Henry’s life in the novel is the “essay” of Henry’s failed book. The play within is the “fiction” of that book.
Martel is arguing that art must prove that it is up to the Holocaust. He proves instead that his book isn’t. This isn’t because art isn’t up to confronting the Holocaust as a subject. It is because Martel’s interest is so clearly removed from writing a novel that is believable or characters that feel substantive. For instance, trying to make a symbolic, pseudo-Beckett staging understandable requires that Henry exhibit an amazing lack of literacy with literary tropes such as symbolism and metaphor. That Henry’s work included animals as characters doesn’t mean that he gets why the taxidermist uses them as characters. Nor does he get why the story takes place on a shirt. Or why the play consists of mainly talking.
It is as if Henry has never been exposed to anything representational. Or anything staged. Or anything written. Henry’s role is nothing other than that of the question mark at the end of a sentence.
To make matters worse, the play within is both obvious and oversimplified—although, granted, not to Henry. Virgil, the howler monkey, is being pursued by unnamed authorities who have labeled him an enemy of the state and slapped wanted posters and propaganda around, decrying him as untrustworthy. Beatrice the donkey, his friend and companion, is tortured for her association with him. Somehow, Henry takes most of the book to recognize that themes of fascism, racism, torture and murder might point to the very subject he himself was fixated on for five years. To make things worse, the confrontation between art and Holocaust, the answer that art gives to the horrors of the 20th century, the grand revelation at the end of the novel, is to lay the Holocaust at the feet of insanity. It is apparently as simple and lazy as that.
How does this happen? How does a novel with such grand premise fail so miserably? It fails in not being a novel that feels authentic. Henry isn’t believable, nor is what happens to him. Where is Henry’s connection to the world? I don’t mean our world, I mean his own. His relationships feel tacked on. The taxidermist is highly rendered, but his wife is but a prop; his music teacher more real than his newborn child; his dog and cat more emotive in their over-wrought deaths (rabies; don’t ask) than Henry himself. Henry’s inability to see the taxidermist’s insanity, obvious to everyone (and I mean everyone —his lack of familiarity with metaphor, analogy, symbolism, or even previous examples of literary use of animals even while he himself quotes it and has done it—makes me wonder how horrible and pedantic his holocaust novel/essay combo must have been that his publisher rejected it. Sadly, I think I know.