The donkey, the monkey, the writer and the holocaust rahal e gas card


“What got me started on this book was something that I noticed over years of reading Holocaust literature – that the mode of representation that dominates the Holocaust is non-fiction,” Martel says. “If you ask your average person, ‘When you think of the Holocaust, what writers do you think about?’ Likely it would be Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank. It struck me how little ‘true fiction’ there really is on the Holocaust – truly invented stories.”

In Beatrice and Virgil (Knopf Canada), Henry is a successful novelist whose latest project is an allegorical Holocaust novel, which he wants to publish as a flipbook, combined with an essay he wrote on Holocaust literature. His publishers balk at the idea, so instead he puts it aside and moves with his pregnant wife to an unnamed European city.

There, he comes across an unusual elderly taxidermist, also named Henry, who requests Henry’s help with a play he’s writing about Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. The play, we find out, takes place on the back of a blue and grey striped shirt and is revealed to us through the course of the novel in snippets. Bit by bit we learn that the animals are living through what they call The Horrors – an event that begins to remind Henry of the Holocaust.

“With the Holocaust we’ve been much more stringent with how we apply it,” Martel, who is not Jewish, says. “It’s not a criticism of what’s out there, but don’t we also need to have those representations that come to us through the imagination?”

He cites, for instance, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, which is a Civil War classic even though the author was born after the war. “He used his imagination. The fact that he wasn’t there didn’t take away from his credibility because it works. And that’s the benchmark: Does it work? Does it make sense? Does it move you?”

Stories operate with characters, he explains. In the case of the Holocaust, the characters were linked only through a single trait – being Jewish, a trait which meant different things to different people. “That was the only thing that linked all these personalities, that they were Jewish. And how do you tell a story where personality does not matter?”

The other problem he sees with telling a Holocaust story is that the narrative arc is always the same. “In the genocide, you are either a victim or a victimizer. You are trapped in this narrative arc which is great if you are the first to tell it.”

He says the natural reaction when telling a genocide story is to be a witness and say what happened, like Levi and Wiesel. “There is nothing wrong with that, but to me history really stays with us and becomes meaningful if in some ways it becomes a story. Stories that are non-fictional are tied to history, and as time goes by their believability may diminish. We have to start telling the Holocaust in different ways. Once an event has past, you’re only left with its representations. As ghastly as it sounds, we need to have Holocaust westerns and science fiction and comedies. Better a funny memorial than no memorial at all.”

Martel says that without fiction the Holocaust will disappear someday. “ I do think with time, it will start to fade. We haven’t found a way of weaving it into the emotional text of our lives. It’s too massive, too literal, too far away. And the event was so unbelievable. With that degree of personal hatred, you need devices to tell that tale.”

Although in the book, Henry’s wife refers to the play as “Winnie the Pooh meets The Holocaust,” Beatrice and Virgil is not a children’s fable. As the play gets revealed to us, it gets darker and darker and what starts as wonderfully-written dialogue about the taste and feel of a pear takes a horrific turn.

In one of many touching bits of dialogue between the two animals, Virgil, the monkey, wants to tell Beatrice three jokes; but Beatrice doesn’t want to hear them. “I can’t anymore,” Beatrice tells Virgil. “Not laugh, or even try to laugh. About anything.”

“We always see the Holocaust as the very end, when people are walking to the gas chambers and that silences everything ,” Martel says. “We’ve got to pull back and see they were human beings before that. Yes, people died but before they died they were alive. No one likes utterly sad things. If you lose your joy of life, your laughter, then the victimizers have robbed you of everything. They’ve won the day.”

“Animal Farm discusses Russia without discussing Russian history,” Martel says. “It’s proper allegory. Art gets to the essence of the event and ignores the facts which are too numerous and too weighty and creates other facts which are fictitious but are spiritually true. Animal Farm is spiritually true but fictitious nonsense. I’m trying to get to the same thing with Beatrice and Virgil, speak about the Holocaust without speaking about it literally – to get to its essence.”