Yann Martel's Shoah business
Yann Martel is using more fable and allegory in the follow-up to his Man Booker winner. Camilla Pia hears from an author at his artistic peak and in domestic bliss
There are certain situations you just don’t expect to find a Man Booker Prize-winning author in. Anything toilet-related is one, so imagine my surprise on calling a swanky London hotel to chat to Yann Martel and finding him ‘busy changing the baby’s bum’. Polite banter with his partner ensues until the child is sorted, but despite this slightly awkward opening exchange it doesn’t take long for the Saskatchewan-based writer to get down to the business of discussing the incredibly weighty purpose to his latest offering, Beatrice and Virgil.
It’s been eight years since we last heard from the hugely acclaimed Life of Pi author, but he is back with a bang, as Martel’s remarkable fourth novel tells of a struggling writer named Henry and his encounters with a crabby, elderly taxidermist. It’s not long before the main protagonist is introduced to a donkey (Beatrice) and howler monkey (Virgil). In our chat, Martel takes little time in offering a stark revelation. ‘I have been interested in the Holocaust all of my life,’ he explains. ‘And as an artist I just kept thinking what can I do about it? How can I understand it? I write books so that I can understand something. With Life of Pi I was trying to understand faith and reason, and with this one I was looking at how do we represent the Holocaust artistically without ever forgetting the sobriety of the event?’
It’s a huge undertaking and an impressive one at that, but it’s also extremely risky. And to do it when all eyes are on your long-awaited literary return? ‘Well, every novel is a risk,’ Martel challenges before assenting, ‘but you’re right, this one was more of a conscious risk and there is a certain amount of anxiety around that. You have to be careful approaching something like the Holocaust and what was difficult about it for me was not so much the emotional weight, not that you forget about it, but it was important to get beyond that initial emotional reaction and really think it all through.’
Before he even attempted to start writing, Martel read hundreds of fiction and non-fiction works about the Holocaust as part of his exhaustive research, and he also visited Poland and Israel to get ‘in the right headspace spiritually. I just kept thinking, “why did this happen? How did it happen? What can I do about it considering I am not Jewish or a descendant of Germans, Poles or Hungarians?” And then I got to, “what stories can be told about it?” Something that helped me when I was writing Life of Pi was using animals. So I approached it using fable and allegory, and it just kept on building from there.”
Beatrice and Virgil is an outstanding intellectual achievement for the author but in typical Martel style, and perhaps most interestingly, he deals with his subject matter in a typically light and incredibly readable style; the mark of a skilled writer at the top of his game. ‘Art has to speak to you and reflect your experience in some way and writing is ultimately about communicating with people,’ he says. ‘You want a book to set off fireworks in the reader’s imagination.’
Beatrice and Virgil is out now published by Canongate.