Is it possible to write a fey novel about the Holocaust? Perhaps, you may be thinking, the better question is, why would anyone want to? But then, you have not read Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, a strange—and often strangely beguiling—novel that is a story of a novelist trying not so successfully to write a novel about the Holocaust. The novel—Martel's novel, that is—also has another story tucked within it—a play that the frustrated novelist is asked to help finish. This play, which at times sounds like a cross between Winnie the Pooh and Waiting for Godot, stars two talking animals, a donkey and a monkey. It is all, to put it mildly, quite complicated.
Martel begins with an old trope: the author of a vastly successful novel who can't get going on his next book. Martel's variation on this idea is that the author has completed a book—part fiction, part essay—about the Holocaust, but then gets talked out of it by his publishers. Given that Martel is the author of Life of Pi, and that he's changed publishers since writing that bestseller, it's natural to speculate about how much of this might be autobiographical. Either way, it's a clever way to start Beatrice and Virgil because it puts the reader off the scent. Henry, the author in the novel, is not going to write about the Holocaust. Then he is approached by a taciturn taxidermist who wants help with a play about a talking donkey and a talking monkey. How the novel finds its way back to the subject of concentration camps and mass murder can't be revealed without spoiling one of the novel's true pleasures. Let it suffice that the answer to the "fey" question is a qualified yes. By not writing about the Holocaust head on, Martel goes a long way toward reawakening our sense of the true enormity of the Final Solution.
Beatrice and Virgil contains two sets of dialogues, one between the donkey and monkey, and one between Henry, the blocked novelist, and the mysterious taxidermist who has asked for Henry's help with his play. The dialogue between the animals is fanciful but never cute. But it's the exchanges between Henry and the taxidermist in his atmospheric shop—a sort of embalmed zoo with surplus fur and eyeballs in all sizes—that allow the book to get its hook into the reader.
They discuss animals, playwriting, zoos—"bastard patches of wilderness," the taxidermist calls them. At one point the taxidermist reads from an essay he's written: "When I work on an animal, I work in the knowledge that nothing I do can alter its life, which is past. What I am actually doing is extracting and refining memory from death." This sounds almost like a penance—its darker meaning will not become clear until the end. Unfortunately, that ending is memorable for all the wrong reasons—melodramatic and obvious where everything before had been subtle and mysterious. Maybe that's just what happens when fey fiction bumps up against hard facts.