Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil is a slim but potent exploration of the nature of survival in the face of evil. Martel's narrator is a novelist named Henry who had great success with his first novel and has worked five years on his second book. This second book is the product of Henry's firm belief that the story of the Holocaust has not been told enough through the medium of fiction -- "how little actual fiction there was about the Holocaust" - but that it is only through fiction, because it is "closer to the full experience of life," that the magnitude of the crimes of the Holocaust can be both conveyed and never forgotten.
Fate brings Henry into contact with a creepy but compelling taxidermist who is writing a play about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. Henry slowly realizes, as he is allowed to hear bits of the actual play, that the taxidermist has found a way to write about the worst of mankind's acts -- torture, sadism, murder, annihilation -- through the voices of these animals. The animals struggle with the double issues of how to survive the cruelties and of how to record them forever. How to survive and how to remember: they come down to the same thing, which is how to emerge as a human (or noble animal, in the case of Beatrice and Virgil) after suffering through the worst atrocities of inhumanity.
One way to ensure survival of humanity is to record the truth of the existence of a now-exterminated people. But it must be a good recording that truly captures the essence of the event of extermination and of the people killed. Taxidermy preserves species that have been hunted, some to extinction; to represent a species even when it is gone forever, quoting the creepy taxidermist, takes hard and careful work: "To ruin an animal with shoddy taxidermy is to forfeit the only true canvas we have on which to represent it, and it condemns us to amnesia, ignorance and incomprehension." He adds later, "That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness." And that is why Henry wants to write his novel about the Holocaust: to bear witness. And that is why we all read novels about the Holocaust and other cases of genocide and human suffering: to bear witness.
Why do we need to bear witness? Henry himself never actually explains the necessity but I have my reasons for why atrocities such as the Holocaust, the purges of Stalin, the mass killings under Mao, the disappearances in Argentina (to name just a few in recent history), should be part of personal and collective memories. Why do Henry, Beatrice and Virgil, and the creepy taxidermist, all, in their own ways, need to record and remember the cruelty of humanity? Does Henry believe, as I do, that novels preserve memories of evil in a brine of truth, illumination, and warning, preventing them from rotting away into nothingness? Do Henry and the taxidermist, and the donkey and the monkey, believe, as I do, that the best tribute we can pay to those who perished in genocidal rampages is to remember them? Does the taxidermist believe redemption is offered in the writing and performing of his play?
The parts of the novel that present the play of "Beatrice and Virgil" were for me the best parts. In facing exceedingly horrible circumstances, the monkey and the donkey express heartbreaking helplessness, fear, and resignation with a nobility somewhat missing from Henry's own discourses. When Henry laments that after suffering through violence, "you acquire companions that never leave you entirely: Suspicion, Fear, Anxiety, Despair, Joylessness", he ignores the lives of millions who have survived terror, pain, and humility, and gone on to live very human and satisfying lives, and he ignores the donkey and the monkey who sought while in the depth of misery to celebrate life, even if only through the playing of games: "Playing games is a way of celebrating life." And yet the games that Henry comes up with instead serve the purpose of remembering and understanding the past. A noble and necessary purpose, but survivors need not only to bear witness but also need to celebrate life. There is testament to those who have died in having those who survive live with joy.
Henry fears there is little fiction about the Holocaust. Beatrice and Virgil is a chilling addition to the literature about the horrors most of us cannot imagine, and will stir its readers to think about the depths of depravity to which humanity can sink and the amplitude of our capacity to survive.
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