Man Booker Prize winner Yann Martel's second novel, Beatrice and Virgil, is in many ways a book of memory and remembrance. The artful metaphor is our only ally against forgetfulness, he says. Excerpts from an exclusive interview...
Yann Martel's second novel has been a long time coming. Recently released in Canada and the US, Beatrice and Virgil has received polarised reviews. That it has been trashed as well as praised, he says, is a sign that it has elicited active engagement, not indifference, from the readers. The controversial reception is a sign that it is getting people to think and act, he says from San Francisco where he is on a promotional tour. Excerpts from a telephonic conversation...
Are you planning on coming to India to promote the book here?
I have a nine-month-old son. Before I can promote it — I am not going to Australia, New Zealand — I want to get back and be with my son. So, as much as I would love to return to India, for any reason, not just to promote my books, just to be in India — I haven't been there for about nine years now — I don't know when that'll be. India has changed a lot, I would love to go back and see that.
Is this novel about the primacy of the imagination? You think we live in a world where the profusion of facts is working against making sensible meaning out of it?
Reality is a 100 million details. Right now where you are, if you think about it, you are surrounded by 100 million details on which you could focus your attention. Everything, from chemical, scientific details to cultural details to personal emotional details... now some of that has to be lost. Time, you know, is an eraser. It all goes. [We need] something we can hold on to. It's called history. But even history has hundreds of thousands of details and sometimes it's overwhelming and it's hard to get to. The forte of the arts, the forte of the imagination is that it can take some of those details and give them immortality. A painting, a story, a song can float across the ocean of time like a lifeboat. So you can get to the essence of an event and convey it in the form of art. It can be like a suitcase, taking the essential and preparing you for a trip to elsewhere...
Does ‘getting to the essence' necessarily bring a moral perspective that is lacking in mere facts?
It can be but art isn't necessarily moral. Art could be immoral too. Art is witness. But in some stories, yes, it can also have a moral edge. It can also, in telling a story, convey certain moral situations. Which is what my novel does at the very end — In “Games for Gustav” are these 12 situations that are morally, existentially difficult. So, yes, it can make a moral situation fresh again...
You dwell at length in the initial stages of the novel about the concrete, everyday circumstances around writing /publishing that are usually glossed over. Is it autobiographical and are you saying that though there is a market built around imagination, it is essential to our being and identity?
I didn't do it because I wanted it to be autobiographical, it was more because of the idea of a writer who stops writing, whose message has stopped, suited me because I was discussing the Holocaust. And any great horrific event, the Holocaust, war, has a tendency to erase language, to make us at a loss for words. You know, famously, when people encountered the Accounts, their language was full of clichés to do with “there are no words to describe”, “I couldn't believe what my eyes were seeing.” So, to have a writer who is at a loss for words and then to meet the taxidermist who is also in some ways at a loss for words suited my purpose when discussing the Holocaust...so that's why I have that theme.
I did indeed have a meeting with my publishers, I did want to do a flip book with them but their argument was different. They were saying, “listen, an essay is a specialised product. A novel is not.” They were afraid the essay would drag down the novel.
You keep coming back to the notion that is art is about joy. The taxidermist is shown as someone who is joyless, cheerless, who plods through his play. “My story has no story. It is based on the fact of murder,” he says at one point. You think the character of the taxidermist is too steretypical, he and the novelist falling easily into opposite sides of a too-easy divide?
Art is joy in a general way. Any art, music, dance, painting, to create at that level is deeply joyful, it involves your whole being. Art and religion are the two ways in which we fully engage with life. In this particular case, I enjoyed wrestling with that subject. I wanted to make the taxidermist ambiguous. He clearly has some sort of a creative impulse, he is working on a play, he is quite rude with the writer. I wanted someone whom we wouldn't understand why he was doing the things he was doing until the very end and even then we are not sure what his intent was.
And that to me was the parallel of the encounter of the Jews of Europe with the Nazis who did not see it coming. By the time they realised fully what the Nazis' intents were, it was too late, they couldn't escape and that's why so many died.
How has the novel been received?
It's been very interesting and very polarised. Some critics absolutely hated it. I got absolutely trashed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and there's some blogger on the Internet named Edward Champion who absolutely hated it. And then you have reviewers who absolutely loved it. The USA Today thought it was positively a masterpiece. There were very positive reviews in Newsweek and the LA Times. So it's been very polarised, which is good. The one thing you don't want with art is indifference. You don't want people to shrug. Even when people hate it, they are engaging with it.
Is there some sort of thematic continuity or evolution between Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil? If the former was about God, faith and religion, the latter is about imagination and art, isn't it?
In some ways they are very different books. Yes, they both feature animals but that's just on the surface. In Life of Pi hopefully the reader loses himself looking at those animals. Forget may be his humanity. In Beatrice and Virgil those animals are anthropomorphised and are meant to bring us back to our humanity.
And as for the role of the imagination, to me it's something more immediate like life itself is an interpretation. We cannot choose the reality we live in, but we can choose how we interpret it. In that sense, imagination is not something whimsical, fairy-tale like, I am simply saying that reality is a co-creation, reality is something which is out there but it is also how you take it. To that extent, I suppose there is a similarity between the two novels in the sense that how you represent reality will speak of how you see it, of what that reality is. A person of faith reads transcendendance into the world, sees a divine plan; I suppose it is the same with reading history. You are representing an event that is past, and in that representation there is an element of interpretation, of imaginative reading. In that way there is a thematic link between the two novels.
To me this novel seems to come behind a line of books from the West dealing with the Holocaust. Why this obsession in the West about the Holocaust? There are historical continuities to the Holocaust in the contemporary world like what is happening in Palestine, Gaza today, injustices, perhaps of equal magnitude. Nobody seems to talk about them much...
Well, aside of the politics of West Asia, which poisons everything, just looking in terms of history, the Holocaust still remains unique: every other genocide before and after has to some extent been politically expedient. The Armenians in Turkey were killed because they were in the way of the Turks who were trying to start their nation. Excesses in Gaza were committed because of political enmity between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In both cases you killed people who were in the way, who bothered you but the ones beyond a certain border were irrelevant to you. But the Nazis were obsessed with killing the Jews everywhere, as if they were a disease. That does remain unique. And the reason I think it is still relevant, not a piece of historical arcana from several years ago in the backwaters of Poland, is because what led to the Holocaust is still absolutely contemporary.
The act of hate, the thinking of hatred, the disrespect in the mind of an individual that eventually in Germany led to the Holocaust, that little beginning, that seed of hatred is found everywhere. The Holocaust is not rooted in Auschwitz, in Poland. It is rooted in the human heart. And that applies to India too. There are people in India with holocaustal thinking, for example the BJP, the Shiv Sena, you know, that kind of hatred of the other whom you don't even know, who is just a construction in your mind to relieve tension, to relieve whatever... that is holocaustal. Now because India is democracy, there is a free press, it is unlikely that there will ever be a genocide but the roots are there...
The thing about this novel is that it is not an orthodox Holocaust novel. There is no history in there, there are no Germans, there is minimal reference to the Holocaust yet it is soaked in it.
So I do choose the Holocaust but not just as a historical artefact, I am looking at what is to me relevant. At the very end, there are 12 more situations where there is no historical colour or detail that put you at the heart of it. And those 12 situations could take place in India. You could be in a line of people about to be executed and you could be holding your grand daughter's hand and she asks you a question. And what might that question be? What would a child be thinking when it sees people being massacred? That completely fits in with realities in India today. That's why I think it's still relevant...
Exclusive excerpts from Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil…
(Virgil and Beatrice are sitting at the foot of the tree. They are looking out blankly. Silence.)
Virgil: What I'd give for a pear.
Beatrice: A pear?
Virgil: Yes. A ripe and juicy one.
Beatrice: I've never had a pear.
Beatrice: In fact, I don't think I've ever set eyes on one.
Virgil: How is that possible? It's a common fruit.
Beatrice: My parents were always eating apples and carrots. I guess they didn't like pears.
Virgil: But pears are so good! I bet you there's a pear tree right around here. (He looks about.)
Beatrice: Describe a pear for me. What is a pear like?
Virgil: (settling back) I can try. Let's see . . . To start with, a pear has an unusual shape. It's round and fat on the bottom, but tapered on top.
Beatrice: Like a gourd.
Virgil: A gourd? You know gourds but you don't know pears? How odd the things we know and don't. At any rate, no, a pear is smaller than an average gourd, and its shape is more pleasing to the eye. A pear becomes tapered in a symmetrical way, its upper half sitting straight and centred atop its lower half. Can you see what I mean?
Beatrice: I think so.
Virgil: Let's start with the bottom half. Can you imagine a fruit that is round and fat?
Beatrice: Like an apple?
Virgil: Not quite. If you look at an apple with your mind's eye, you will notice that the girth of the apple is at its widest either in the middle of the fruit or in the top third, isn't that so?
Beatrice: You're right. A pear is not like this?
Virgil: No. You must imagine an apple that is at its widest in the bottom third.
Beatrice: I can see it.
Virgil: But we must not push the comparison too far. The bottom of a pear is not like an apple's.
Virgil: No. Most apples sit on their buttocks, so to speak, on a circular ridge or on four or five points that keep them from falling over. Past the buttocks, a little ways up, there's what would be the anus of the fruit if the fruit were a beast.
Beatrice: I see precisely what you mean.
Virgil: Well, a pear is not like that. A pear has no buttocks. Its bottom is round.
Beatrice: So how does it stay up?
Virgil: It doesn't. A pear either dangles from a tree or lies on its side.
Beatrice: As clumsy as an egg.
Virgil: There's something else about the bottom of a pear: most pears do not have those vertical grooves that some apples have. Most pears have smooth, round, even bottoms.
Beatrice: How enchanting.
Virgil: It certainly is. Now let us move north past our fruity equator.
Beatrice: I'm following you.
Virgil: There comes this tapering I was telling you about.
Beatrice: I can't quite see it. Does the fruit come to a point? Is it shaped like a cone?
Virgil: No. Imagine the tip of a banana.
Beatrice: Which tip?
Virgil: The end tip, the one you hold in your hand when you're eating one.
Beatrice: What kind of banana? There are hundreds of varieties.
Virgil: Are there?
Beatrice: Yes. Some are as small as fat fingers, others are real clubs. And their shapes vary too, as do their taste.
Virgil: I mean the regular, yellow ones that taste really good.
Beatrice: The common banana, M. sapientum. You probably have the Gros Michel variety in mind.
Virgil: I'm impressed.
Beatrice: I know bananas.
Virgil: Better than a monkey. Take the end tip of a common banana, then, and place it on top of an apple, taking into account the differences between apples and pears that I've just described.
Beatrice: An interesting graft.
Virgil: Now make the lines smoother, gentler. Let the banana flare out in a friendly way as it merges into the apple. Can you see it?
Beatrice: I believe I can.
Virgil: One last detail. At the very top of this apple-banana composite, add a surprisingly tough stalk, a real tree trunk of a stalk. There, you have an approximation of a pear.
Beatrice: A pear sounds like a beautiful fruit.
Virgil: It is. In colour, commonly, a pear is yellow with black spots.
Beatrice: Like a banana again.
Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel, Penguin India, 2010, p.216, hardback, Rs. 450.