Writer’s Salon with Yann Martel

Date and Venue 24 October at a private residence | Jewish Book Festival events run until 25 November at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, 950 West 41st Avenue

Reviewer Cassie Silva

On October 24th, I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the home of Jack Amar and Deborah Roitberg, the chair of the Jewish Book Festival Committee, to join in on an intimate writer’s salon with Booker Prize-winning author Yann Martel. I was curious to meet the intriguing Martel, not only because he has become a household name since the 2001 release of his award-winning novel Life of Pi, but because his provocative new novel, Beatrice & Virgil, had left me with some questions I wanted answered.

The evening started off with some hors d'oeuvres and mingling, but guests soon began drifting into the living room to grab a seat for the main event. It was quite an intimate event, with only about 35-40 guests present. Frieda Miller, director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, introduced our guest of honour and introduced his new book. She mused about how we will continue to teach the lessons of the Holocaust once there are no more survivors around to bear witness, and suggested “perhaps representational works of art like Beatrice & Virgil will play a role.”

This new novel, I should explain, is essentially a story about a donkey and a howler monkey (Beatrice and Virgil, respectively) who live on a striped shirt. Martel originally wrote their tale as a 2-Act play, but felt it just wasn’t working. He then opted to pair their story with a non-fiction essay about the Holocaust, but his editors gently suggested against it. What eventually resulted, was an intriguing mix of two stories – that of Beatrice and Virgil, and that of a discouraged author and a playwright taxidermist with a mysterious past.

Martel quickly put us all at ease and created a comfortable atmosphere. He introduced himself and explained that he has no Jewish or European heritage, so his link to the Holocaust is that of an outsider. He discussed how he understood the idea of war as a child, as most children do on a childish level when they compare war to squabbles between siblings, but the Holocaust had really baffled him. “It stayed in my memory as a historical oddity” he explained, as he told how in the years to come he read as many Holocaust memoirs as possible, watched Holocaust movies and documentaries, and even visited Auschwitz to try to make sense of it all.

The most important take-away from Martel’s speech was his idea of the River of Time – in his words, “the River of Time swallows moments as they pass, until all that is left is a historical representation.” Photos and memories can help recall bits and pieces of these moments, but “something will inevitably be lost.” He went on to explain that there is an absence of true fiction about the Holocaust, as most fiction is really thinly disguised biographies or autobiographies, and true fiction often loses its credibility and is even pulled from publication when it reveals itself. He discussed the animal allegory he utilized so effectively in Life Of Pi and again in Beatrice & Virgil, and explained it as a literary device to signal to readers that what they are reading is not realism, but is literature. One important scene in the book features Virgil attempting to help Beatrice understand what a pear is by describing it. Martel explained that this was his way of saying, “If language can’t describe a pear, how can it describe the Holocaust? It can’t. But it’s all we have.”

When asked the obvious question we were all dying to know – whether his main character, Henry, is meant to mirror Yann himself – the author answered, “It doesn’t matter.” He acknowledged the two have much in common (for instance, they are both authors who enjoy utilizing animal allegories in their writing) but also are quite different and that Henry is definitely a fictional construct. It struck me how Martel really is a master storyteller – even in explaining the process involved in writing his novel he lulls us all into what must be a similar trance as what occurs to children when they are read aloud to.

One parent asked why she should give her child Martel’s story to read over a non-fictional account like The Diary of Anne Frank. “Perhaps you shouldn’t,” was Martel’s reply. “You should give her both.” How is the story of a donkey and monkey more relevant, the woman wondered, than a book like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars? Another man agreed that if a person asked him to recommend a definitive book to help him understand the Holocaust, he wouldn’t necessarily give them Beatrice & Virgil. Martel’s response was simple: Of course you should refer him to a historical text before a form of art if he wants to learn about history. You wouldn’t give a child Animal Farm to read, without first giving them a lesson in Russian history. In order to understand an allegory, one must first understand what it is based on.

Martel explained that his intent with the book, which took him nearly seven years to write, was to look at the Holocaust, but not to bear witness. The problem with there primarily being only non-fiction accounts of the Holocaust, he explained, is that the non-fiction approach is so rooted in history, that as time goes by, it starts to collect dust. Going back to his River of Time metaphor, Martel explained, “Art is one of the only things that floats along the River of Time.” He gave examples of modern readers relating to Jane Austen’s novels more easily than they would a historical non-fiction story from the same time period. An appreciation of art lasts longer than an understanding and appreciation of history, he explained. There is an immediacy and timelessness to Austen’s novels that keeps them fresh in readers’ minds that doesn’t happen with non-fiction.

He said that a fifteen-year-old today may look at black-and-white grainy photos from the Holocaust, or listen to an elderly survivor’s video testimony, and conclude that the Holocaust happened a long, long time ago to only very old people. A distancing of time occurs with non-fictional accounts, which does not happen with fictional accounts. “Art,” Martel explained, “speaks the language of time.” The young lady to my left sucked in her breath. “That makes so much sense,” she enthused.

One male audience member expressed his displeasure at modern representations of the Holocaust in film, such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” and asked Martel how an imaginative representation can be told without being disrespectful. Martel offered a very insightful answer, explaining that the movie in question indeed featured juvenile humour and excessive violence, but that it was genius in the irony it displayed, particularly in the fate Hitler suffered at the end of the film. While this retelling was not historically accurate, certain inventions were made for the satisfaction it would give viewers who would think, “If only it had happened that way.” In Martel’s words: “You have to let irony operate.” He recommended to the crowd not arguing with Holocaust deniers, but saying to them: “I like your irony, that’s very funny.” His advice on modern comedians who tell jokes about the Holocaust was “Humour carries a history lesson.” An audience member may laugh at a joke, but they will continue to think about it long after they hear it, and the reference might start a dialogue where there otherwise may not have been one.

Martel then commented on the bad reviews his new novel has received in the U.S. and the U.K., which accuse him of being “perverse” and “trivializing the Holocaust” and said he would expect that Holocaust survivors may not approve of the literary devices he used such as allegory, metaphor and irony, but is quite surprised that literary critics would say he can’t use these literary devices in his novel. The audience appeared quite satisfied with Martel’s speech, and Martel kindly stayed after to autograph books and answer questions one-on-one. Can such an artistic representation of the Holocaust influence generations to come? I would recommend reading Beatrice & Virgil and deciding for yourself. My own opinion is similar to that voiced to Martel by another audience member about the book: “It’s brilliant. You really captured it.”

© 2010 Cassie Silva