The trouble with postmodern playfulness arises most significantly when that playfulness is at its most serious. Take Donald Barthelme’s "The Indian Uprising", for example. It’s a postmodern analysis of the pernicious nature of our avaricious modern society, but no-one takes offence because its potshots are general, its targets largely undefined.
Yann Martel’s strange novel, Beatrice and Virgil, on the other hand, is a playful analysis of the Holocaust. Hence the difficulty for readers: something as baleful as the Holocaust is difficult to approach on any level; turning it into a fable about a talking howler monkey and its donkey companion is only ever going to leave readers perplexed at best, apoplectic at worst. But beneath the postmodernism is something timeless – not for nothing does Martel quote –at length – Flaubert and even Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. And it is intensely serious, too, asking questions about the nature of memory and the ways in which human beings can reconcile themselves to the evil inflicted by ourselves on ourselves. It is a debate that has perhaps stilled since the immediate postwar years, when Hannah Arendt and others tried to comprehend the banality of evil, and since the fifties and sixties when the critique of modernity was its peak – or do I mean nadir? – with Horkheimer and Adorno and their analysis of post-holocaust meaning, but the debate has not gone away. How can it, when answers are still as elusive as they always were? Cormac McCarthy, for one, has devoted a career to the questions posed by Martel in this novel and, as we can see from McCarthy’s script for The Counselor, he’s no closer to getting to the truth. Nor is Martel. But Beatrice and Virgil is a brave, intriguing, intelligent exploration of intensely difficult material, which many critics simply misunderstand.
For Ron Charles, it is “dull”, “misguided” and “pretentious”. He suggests “the allusion to Dante's Divine Comedy is just one of several dead ends”. Well, they are only dead ends if you don’t see the doorways leading from them, and Charles most certainly does not see those. Rather, he suggests: “Martel clearly has set out in all sincerity to commemorate the Holocaust and consider its effect on victims, survivors and perpetrators.” But this is only part of what Martel is attempting to do in the novel. Charles is missing the thematic depth. For him, Beatrice and Virgil is “well-meaning sentimentality dressed up with postmodern doodads.” No it isn’t.
Michiko Kakutani’s critique is more trenchant still. Never one to mince her words – or, usually, get them right – she suggests: “Mr. Martel’s new book, Beatrice and Virgil, unfortunately, is every bit as misconceived and offensive as [Life of Pi] was fetching.” It reads, she argues, “as an allegory about the Holocaust in which the tragic fate of the title characters — a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil, who are stuffed animals in a taxidermy shop — is seen ‘through the tragic fate of Jews.’” Maybe it does, but only if you’ve read the novel completely wrongly. Kakutani sees an unfortunate conflation of the Holocaust and animal rights:
[Martel’s] story has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust, using it as a metaphor to evoke “the extermination of animal life” and the suffering of “doomed creatures” who “could not speak for themselves.”Again, this is not so. Other critics have expressed similar reservations, however. For James Lasdun it’s “perplexing”, a mixture of “clarity and confusion, insight and banality, boldness and a persistent, self-monitoring nervousness.” The nervousness, Lasdun suggests, is understandable, because: “What author wouldn't be nervous offering up a fable about the Holocaust featuring a talking donkey and monkey?” This presents the major difficulty with most critical readings of the novel: they underplay the thematic content to a significant degree. For this reason, Lasdun sees the story’s structure, with the intricate layerings of retellings of the same story, as “a kind of serial distancing of author from content”. As we shall see later, this is not the case at all. Kakutani makes the same observation, when she reasons:
Mr. Martel tries to distance himself a bit from this narrative strategy by attributing the story of Beatrice and Virgil to an amateur playwright, who mourns the dying of animal species around the world and who may actually have been a Nazi collaborator.This is wholly wrong. It is as though these critics believe Martel came up with the conceit but did not have the courage to see it through to its conclusion and sought, instead, to set himself at an ironic distance from the allegory he has created. That cannot be the case. Thus, Lasdun suggests:
Likely objections to the material are foreseen and articulated, presumably as a means of defusing them: "Winnie-the-Pooh meets the Holocaust", scoffs the author's wife when she learns of the taxidermist's play.Well, no. The opposite is true. This is taking literally what Martel is presenting, in typical postmodern fashion, ironically. The result for Lasdun, then, is that the idea of the novel is “dimly appalling”. That is because he hasn’t understood it. He is concerned that:
as the book progresses we discover that, far from using animals to think about Jews, the taxidermist is more interested in using Jews to think about animals. This does seem problematic, if only because the Holocaust is a concrete historical event, and to use it as an integer in a fable about something else is inevitably to falsify it.Having comprehensively underplayed the novel’s themes, Lasdun then reaches the extraordinary conclusion:
Beatrice and Virgil seems, despite its evidently large ambitions, strangely trivial and narcissistic: a book that ends up thinking about neither Jews nor animals, but using the extermination of both to think about, of all things, writer's block.Such an explanation is almost perverse in the way it wilfully ignores the depth and range of thematic concerns Martel explores. The Holocaust is certainly used as an important device in the novel, but this in no way means the novel is “about” the Holocaust. It’s about much more than that. It’s about how we remember the Holocaust. It’s about how we reconcile the Holocaust with our human aspirations, with human love, with community. It's about memory, truth, time. Pasha Malla begins to get close to this in her critique when she states:
There are ruminations on how the Holocaust has been aestheticized and commemorated through writing, but if the book is about the Holocaust, it focuses more on what the Holocaust represents than how it is represented - and then only tangentially. So what is Beatrice & Virgil about?She quotes Henry in the novel itself, who suggests that all good novels are essentially about truth. And that is so. Specifically, however, this novel explores truth in the context of a world fallen into, first, horror and, second, despair. Thus, you could argue it is a critique of modernity. But it is more than that: in true postmodern fashion it is also a critique of the critique of modernity, and that is something wonderfully refreshing in the depressed and depressive literary Weltanschauung that seems to have taken hold in the early twenty-first century.
The exploration of truth in a desperate world would appear to recall Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and many critics note, not altogether flatteringly, the similarities between the play-within-the-novel written by the taxidermist and Godot’s play. Michiko Kakutani calls it “a derivative recycling of Beckett”. For Benjamin Secher, the novel’s “language echoes Beckett, but lacks both his poetry and his wit.” James Lasdun refers to the “odd, pastiche-Beckett” of the play in which Beatrice and Virgil appear. Joy Lo Dico is more positive, writing of the “beautiful Beckettian scene in which a donkey asks a howler monkey to describe a pear to her – and a note asking for help.”
While the references to Godot in the novel are obvious and intentional, however, perhaps a more striking similarity could be found in Beckett’s Endgame, where the action unfolds in a failing, possibly dying world in which the characters appear fated to live and relive and relive their lives, their mistakes, their crimes. This existentialist nightmare begins to probe questions of time and its meaning, or perhaps meaninglessness. The continual cries of “Me to play” by the central character, Hamm, are instructive. Playing what? Playing a role? A performance? So he is a performer? Perhaps the teller of the story. Or stories. If he is a storyteller, what is his story? How does it link to other stories? How does it link to life? All of these questions could be applied, too, to Henry in Beatrice and Virgil and, indeed, to Beatrice and Virgil themselves, and the taxidermist who created them (twice, once as stuffed animals and once as characters in his play). All of them, then, are players, players in a game, the game, in games, all games, all games are one game, over and over, endlessly recycling, everywhere, everywhen. This is the cloistered, claustrophobic world of Endgame. And it defines what happens between Henry and the taxidermist, between the stuffed animals Beatrice and Virgil, between the oppressor and the oppressed throughout history. So, in Beatrice and Virgil, the Holocaust is a particular, certainly, but it is only a particular. The Holocaust is not so named in the taxidermist’s play. Rather, it is called “the horrors”: the nomenclature is important. Despite what Kakutani thinks the Holocaust is not used here as a metonym for evil; it is but a particular example of it. And this evil exists through time and ever will and it will return and there is nothing that any of us can do about it. So argued Beckett and so argues Martel.
Therefore, evil must be considered a principal thematic concern of the novel. This comes across most strongly in the beautiful and stark relationship between Beatrice and Virgil. Virgil says to Beatrice at one point: “But there’s evil every day of the week.” “Because we’re around every day of the week,” replies Beatrice. “But we’ve done nothing wrong!” exclaims Virgil. Except, of course, they have, as we have, all of us, if one accepts the doctrine of original sin, if one accepts the fall of man, if one suggests, in particular, that the Holocaust, because it happened in human history, is the guilty secret of all of us, even the “children of ghosts” who have come after. Virgil asks Beatrice: “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through? It’s incomprehensible. It’s an insult... how are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it’s over?”
This takes us to a key question in post-holocaust philosophical debate. How can we reconcile the evil that was undertaken by humanity? Returning to Endgame, German philosopher Theodor Adorno made a study of that text in 1961 as part of his Notes to Literature. More famously, along with Max Horkheimer, he produced the Dialectic of Enlightenment, written during the Second World War, and Education After Auschwitz in 1966. Horkheimer and Adorno began the Dialectic of Enlightenment thus:
Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.This provoked them to question “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly new human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism”. Later, in a much-quoted and little understood conclusion, Adorno suggested: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. This is, to an extent, a dangerous argument. However repulsive the Holocaust was, it must never be allowed to stand metonymically for human nature. It is one aspect of human nature, certainly, but it does not represent it. Adorno was clear about this. Martel is clear about this. I am unconvinced that his critics understand it.
There is a very conscious allusion to Adorno’s reference to poetry and Auschwitz in Beatrice and Virgil, when Beatrice asks: “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through?” Again, however, one should be wary of assuming this therefore proves the novel is specifically about the Holocaust. For German thinkers in the immediate postwar period, such as Adorno and Eric Voegelin, attempts to “master the past”, in the context of postwar Germany’s understanding of its Nazi history, are entirely problematic and, indeed, impossible. Adorno, in Education after Auschwitz argued that unreconstituted National Socialism survived in the make-up of postwar German institutions, much like the residue of plague that lingers after the outbreak in Oran has been overcome in Albert Camus’s The Plague, ready to reinfect an unwary world. Thus, Adorno argued in Negative Dialectic that Nazi barbarism imposed a “new categorical imperative” on human beings to ensure that “Auschwitz would not repeat itself [and] nothing similar would happen”.
This is what Martel is seeking to explore in Beatrice and Virgil. In Beckettian fashion, he creates recycling and replaying worlds in which the same horrors are rehearsed over and over – in Henry’s flipbook alternately presenting the fiction and non-fiction of the Holocaust, in the taxidermist’s play, in the narrative of Henry and the taxidermist – and in each iteration the same vile results are reproduced.
Thus, the story of Beatrice and Virgil is mimicked by the actions of Henry and the taxidermist, so that they begin to meld into one another. In this, we are seeing a rehearsal of a theme which has dominated the late fiction of Cormac McCarthy, the notion of all stories being one story, all history written in a seed, everywhere, everywhen. Just as Virgil reads about the new category of non-citizen and realises it describes him, making him feel instantly self-conscious, Henry, too, is disconcerted by the eccentric behaviour of the taxidermist in the cafe and is conscious of being observed. Later, Henry admires a soliloquy in the taxidermist’s play, noting that “[t]he change of pronouns was effective, from ‘someone’ and ‘they’ to ‘you’, hinging on ‘one’ in the ironic ‘life goes on, triumphant, one might say.’”. A page later, Henry performs in a play himself and the same formulation he admired in the taxidermist’s prose is used to describe his performance: “The play ran Thursday to Sunday two weeks in a row and it went well, although one can never tell about a play in which one is a participant because one never sees the play oneself.” The change of prounoun is marked, and it permits a Husserlian examination of intentionality.
It seems likely that the taxidermist and Henry (and, probably, Martel as well) are one and the same – everyman, all of us, hubristic man simultaneously seeking understanding, love, pity, redemption. Early in the novel, Henry tries to explain his flipbook novel to the philistine editors who cannot understand its worth:
My book is about representations of the Holocaust. The event is gone; we are left with stories about it. My book is about a new choice of stories. With a historical event, we not only have to bear witness, that is, tell what happened and address the needs of ghosts. We also have to interpret and conclude, so that the needs of people today, the children of ghosts, can be addressed. In addition to the knowledge of history, we need the understanding of art. Stories identify, unify, give meaning to. Just as music is noise that makes sense, a painting is colour that makes sense, so a story is life that makes sense.Once more, the thematic resonances behind this are pure McCarthy, right down to the idea of “bearing witness”. The whole of our existence, for McCarthy, is an act of bearing witness. As the heretic priest tells Billy in The Crossing: “Acts have their being in the witness. Without him who can speak of it”. This is broadly Hegelian, in the way it seeks to present the unity of vision of God and his children. In Beatrice and Virgil, Henry develops the theme when he quotes Meister Eckhart:
The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see him; my eye and his eye are one. In justice, I am weighted in God and He in me. If God were not, I would not be; if I were not, then He would not be.It is clear that too many critics of Beatrice and Virgil miss this essential theme. It seems a strange omission, given the highly theological turn Martel took in the latter stages of Life of Pi, and the use of Beatrice and Virgil as the names of his central characters in this novel. They, of course, guided Dante through purgatory and paradise respectively in The Divine Comedy, the essentially Thomistic allegory of the search for understanding of and access to the transcendent God. Thus, while too many critics of Beatrice and Virgil dwell too much on the manifest evil of the mundane world, not enough give sufficient attention to the novel’s aspiration for release from this evil into redemption and transcendence. This is why Joy Lo Dico, in a broadly sound critique, is wrong to state: “Where Life of Pi was about belief, in stories and God, Beatrice and Virgil is about crushing belief.” Late in the novel Beatrice expresses the desire “To remember and yet to go on living.” This is the belief that matters in the novel, a humanist belief in humanity and the reflection that the fight, however painful, is worth it.