Yann Martel and his allegorical menagerie
At the Festival of Books on Sunday, Michael Silverblatt launched his discussion with Yann Martel by addressing the elephant in the room: “Beatrice and Virgil,” his third book, received an enormous bandwidth of critical response, some ecstatic and some expressing, in Silverblatt’s parlance, a feeling of “Grrrrrrr.”
Martel first defended why he choose the genre of allegory — along with two stuffed animals with the names Beatrice and Virgil — to represent the Holocaust. “The moral of a fable is eternal,” he said, while “the moral of a story is temporary to a story.” He also argued that we shouldn’t assume that reality-based fiction is the best way to transmit information about reality.
Even though “Beatrice and Virgil” isn’t set in the 1940s or Germany, Martel did a great deal of research about the era and World War II. He briefly discussed such notable Holocaust titles as Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” Primo Levi’s “If This Is a Man” and Art Spiegelman's “Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale,” a graphic novel that uses animals to describe the Holocaust. Although Martel disliked the Hitler-era movie “Inglourious Basterds,” citing a longstanding dislike for director Quentin Tarantino, he admired the way that the movie rewrote that period of history.
Silverblatt also asked Martel why he returned to animals to drive his novels. Martel admitted that the banal answer was perhaps the correct one: Animals work for him as a storytelling device. More specifically, he found that he couldn’t enter the world of the Holocaust as a Jew or as someone of Eastern European descent, so animals allowed him a way in.
Martel also took some time to rebut criticisms of his work. Although he’s written two novels that involve animals ("The Life of Pi" and "Self"), he regards it as such a fertile field that one could mine it indefinitely. “To say that I have three novels about animals is like saying I have three novels set in England,” he said. Though most readers expect animals to appear prominently only in children’s literature, Martel said, he doesn’t find anything very childlike about, say, his use of a tiger as a character.
Martel acknowledged that the animals in "Life of Pi" created a number of interpretations, some more fantastical than others. In Switzerland, Martel said, a woman approached him with an original theory: “She said that Pi fed the tiger, trained the tiger, cleaned up after the tiger, and afterwards, the tiger left without saying goodbye. Then she asked whether my book was a metaphor for marriage.”
As far as his next project, Martel would say only that it’s about the role of the teacher in society. “Though I fear being typecast,” he added, “the next novel also features animals.”
—John Matthew Fox
Photo: Michael Silverblatt, left, and Yann Martel. Credit: John Matthew Fox