Interview with Yann Martel, March 3, 2011
Time of paperback release of Beatrice and Virgil (see
Interviewer: Rob Neufeld
Photo of Martel by Alice Kuiper
Y: Oh, thank you very much.
R: Made even more so by the fact that one is led to go back and read the earlier parts of the novel in light of what happens. It’s crushing!
Y: Oh, good!
R: Fable-writing is such a powerful tool for you. How did you develop as a fabulist?
Y: I guess I was born into it. Both my parents are big readers, and my father is also a writer. He’s a poet. So I always grew up with books, and then my parents traveled a lot. They were diplomats. They worked for the equivalent of the Secretary of State. They worked for the [Canadian] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I lived several years in France and Mexico, and Costa Rica and Spain. I saw the world, and that’s a kind of reading, so that influenced me, too. And then I started writing in at the university. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. No particular profession appealed to me. Just to pass the time, I started scribbling at stories. And initially, they were terrible. They were immature. But I kept at it, just to pass the time, and slowly I got better. I had a few stories published in literary reviews. I met an agent. I got a prize, and suddenly I was a writer. I thought I’d be doing this until a finger broke the clouds and pointed at me and said: You will be an economist, or you will be a dentist, or you will be something like that. No finger ever pointed at me, and I just kept on writing, and I got better, and suddenly I was making a living from it. So I kept at it.
R: You didn’t start off writing fables, although you did write allegories.
Y: I’m not interested in describing reality in the most factual way possible. I like exploring reality, and the best way I find to do that is to use metaphor. What’s great about allegory and metaphor is you get to the essence of something without having to worry too much about factuality. Facts are just foundational. What’s really important is the interpretation of facts, and I find metaphor, allegories, and fables helpful in doing that.
R: Especially when it comes to history, some people are confused when you tell them that metaphors are as significant as the facts.
Y: It is the metaphors that will explain what the facts mean. Now, I’m not normally a historical writer. Beatrice and Virgil is I think my only historical novel, or my only allegory based on history. Life of Pi, I wouldn’t call historical; or Self, my first novel; or my collection of short stories [The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios]. My next book will start in the early twentieth century, but I wouldn’t call it a historical novel. It was more my long-standing interest in the Holocaust that had led me to write about it.
R: How did your book originate? I have a notion that it started with imagining two characters in a Holocaust situation, and then developing them as animals in a fable. Is that how it started?
Y: The allegorical element came right away. The very first thing I wrote was the play, of which you read fragments in the novel. I actually wrote that play in its entirety. It’s a full two-act play, and it didn’t work. Curiously, it was breaking it into pieces, just getting fragments, that suddenly started to make it work. So, it started as a play. The play didn’t work, so I broke it into pieces, and added that extra layer, that novelistic element. Then I decided to clarify my thinking in the way that the author mentions in the book, with that essay on the Holocaust and its representations. I wrote that. My publishers weren’t keen on the idea of a flip book [two books in one, each starting from opposite book covers], so I rewrote the novel, injecting elements of the essay in the early part. It was a much more torturous than Life of Pi, which was a very easy novel. That was a straight line. Right away, I knew what I wanted to do and nothing made me change my mind. Because of the complexity of [Beatrice and Virgil]—I don’t mean because of the emotional weight, you get used to that. I spent six, seven years with the Holocaust. You get used to the sobriety of the subject matter. It was more the artistic complexity. What do you do with a genocide? How do you turn genocide into art without turning it into entertainment, without denigrating the suffering? How do you properly turn it into art that meaningfully reflects the suffering of the Holocaust? To answer that question took me a long time, and a lot of writing and rewriting, and a lot of meandering. So, it was a much more complex process writing this one.
R: It seems that the answers to, “How do you deal with the Holocaust?” are to make sure that certain things are remembered, but also, as far as the characters in the novel are concerned, to practice a mantra of “forced cheerfulness.”
Y: Yes, many of those things on that sewing kit list [the list of ways to respond to horror] I do believe in. If you’re faced with the inevitable, you might as well make the best of it. In terms of remembering, I do believe we have to remember, but not in the standard ways that have been done. The Holocaust, I learned working on this book, has overwhelmingly been represented in non-fictional terms. The books…tend to be either memoirs of survivors, like Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel, or history books. There’s nothing wrong with those books. They are masterpieces. They very much explain to us what had happened. But I don’t think other historical events are so exclusively represented by non-fiction. Think of war, for example…Wars are as commonly represented by history books and memoirs as they are by fiction. We’re quite happy fictionalizing war. I’ll give you an example. “The Red Badge of Courage” is a complete fiction. Stephen Crane wasn’t even born during the Civil War. He invented his character. He intuited his way into the skin of a soldier and the clash of a battle, and because he was a good writer and was inspired, he did it well, and we accept that as a Civil War classic, even though it’s a complete invention. You very, very rarely get that with the Holocaust. Most fictions on the Holocaust are, in fact, thinly disguised autobiographies or biographies. That invention of fact to get the spiritual truth, you get extremely rarely. Now, you’re beginning to get a bit of the lighter touch—Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated took a more comedic approach. In cinema, Life Is Beautiful. You’re starting to get that, but it’s quite rare. I think that’s a limitation. I think we truly understand something once we in some way transform it into art. After all, most people can’t handle the complexity of history. It’s too vast, too complicated. If you’re a historian, yes; if you’re directly involved in it, perhaps, Otherwise, if you’re an outsider to it, the best way to understand something vast and complex is through art, because art can get to the essence of something without being weighed down by all the history, by all the fact. That’s exactly wherein lies the power of allegory. The example I give in my book is, to me, a perfect example—George Orwell’s Animal Farm. There you have allegory getting to the essence of a historical event, in this case, Stalinism in Russia. That kind of approach—factually light, but spiritually dead on, morally dead on, has been done very rarely with the Holocaust.
R: The allegory of Animal Farm enables us to apply it to any totalitarian regime. In Beatrice and Virgil, you go beyond the Holocaust and you suggest other reigns of terror, particularly when Beatrice is waterboarded. That wasn’t a Nazi technique, was it?
Y: As far as I know, it wasn’t. Oh yes, absolutely. That’s what’s great about things like that. They can be applied to other circumstances. The original story doesn’t get trapped by history. That’s what I find is a problem with the Holocaust. When people think of the Holocaust, they never think of it as being something contemporary, the way war is. They think of it as historical. They see it as something happening between 1933 and 1945 in Europe in black & white long ago. It’s not us. It was Nazis and Jews. It has nothing to do with us. That’s absurd. One of the startling things of the Holocaust is where it took place—in Germany, which thought of itself—and everyone agreed—as being a highly civilized place. Who would have thought that it would descend into that kind of butchery? It seemed as likely to them then as it would be if suddenly in Switzerland, a huge massacre of 400,000 people suddenly burst up. People would say, “What, Switzerland?” I think that the world hasn’t gotten over Nazi Germany. The mix of civility and absolute barbarity is still a shock people haven’t fully absorbed. Hence the need to approach it in new ways.
R: And remember what you learn.
Y: Absolutely. I said somewhere, in many ways this is a mnemonic novel, but not for the facts. ‘33 to ‘45 are just numbers. It’s the meaning of the facts that have to be remembered, and that’s why I chose an allegorical book. That struck me as a far richer way of approaching it—more likely of lasting. Think of it. History books don’t last. You go into a bookstore and come upon a 1970s book about the situation in the Middle East. It’s of no interest. Things have so much. A novel, on the other hand, on the 1970s in Israel will still be read….There’s something perennial about great fiction that makes it a more fruitful approach.
R: Life of Pi became one of the top five books for campus and community reading programs. Beatrice and Virgil would be a sensational choice since it so directly challenges the reader. Are you finding that this book is being picked up in that way?
Y: I don’t know. Life of Pi had an extraordinary career. Beatrice and Virgil, precisely because it’s a difficult subject [handled] in an unusual way, [the response] has been divided. Some reviews have been extraordinarily negative, and some of them have been very positive. Some people don’t want to go the route of allegory. It’s amazing to me how literary critics—for example the New York Times literary critic…would say: You cannot use the tools of literature. You can’t use allegory or metaphor when it comes to the Holocaust. To have a literary critic disempowering yourself I thought was very odd, but that’s had an effect on some people. So, because I’ve had more divided reviews, maybe colleges have shied away from it. Time will tell. It only came out a year or so ago, so we’ll see.
R: Yeah, I don’t get that at all. There was a lot of criticism of Life Is Beautiful as well, because of the sense of humor, and it puzzled me because the feeling you were left with coming out of that movie was appropriately serious.
Y: That’s a very good point. People who are suspicious of different approaches to the Holocaust are afraid that somehow art is going to denature it. When someone makes war comedy—such as Catch-22; it doesn’t think that war is funny, it’s using humor as an analytical tool. The same thing with Life Is Beautiful. Benigni used humor as a way to explore the tragedy of what happened. If you laugh, it’s sad laughter. Afterwards, it’s a sad laughter, it’s laughter that illuminates the sadness…War is represented in so many ways—war romances, war comedies, war thrillers. With some of those, the actual representations of the war are quite distant, but they’re still useful as tools to think how we think of war. To limit ourselves in terms of Holocaust representation is to limit how we think about the Holocaust, and that does no one any good.
R: You’re also writing about animal extinction.
Y: Yes, there’s a parallel you can make, that same sort of active collaboration of some people, and the passive collaboration of a great many more. Every developer is an active destroyer of the environment. The people who move in are passive collaborators. That’s the same sort of mechanism you saw with the destruction of the Jews…You have a host of people who were somehow blind to what happened. They turned the other way. They didn’t necessarily approve, but they exhibited cowardice. You can’t expect heroism of everyone—of anyone, in fact, but the collective turning away meant that all these people collaborated in the doings of a tiny minority. And once again, that’s an ongoing phenomenon. We do that with the destruction of the environment, racism in the United States, the treatment of natives in Canada, the treatment of Arabs in France. That mechanism is always present. You have people who are actively willing to hate, and then you have a greater number who are passively willing to just let happen…There are a lot of things that led to the Holocaust, and those are the things I believe are contemporary.
R: Is awareness about animal consciousness and animal suffering the next big frontier for human consciousness?
Y: Absolutely. The industrialization of the treatment of animals—the way chickens are treated and all that—is unspeakably cruel. I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t mind if people hunt. If you take responsibility for killing an animal, then you’re right to eat it. After all, we are carnivorous. It is a good source of protein, but I want people to take responsibility. It’s that casual buying of meat in supermarkets that I object to. You’re taking no responsibility for the raising, the feeding, the killing, the quartering of that animal; and you’re forgetting entirely that it’s a sentient being. You’re just seeing a packaged product there. You’re not taking responsibility, and I think that’s morally dangerous.
R: Do you mainly use your writing to change consciousness, or, for instance with the cause of recognizing the plight of animals, is that something that you carry forward in other ways?
Y: I wouldn’t say that I’m a political writer. The Holocaust is by the far the most political topic I’ve touched on. But usually I write to understand something for myself. Life of Pi, I wanted to understand the mechanism of faith. I wanted to put a check to my excessive reasonableness. In my first book, a collection of short stories, I was exploring the nature of storytelling. What can stories do? How are they constructed? In Self, I was looking at gender politics. It’s the story of a man who becomes a woman, who’s a woman for seven years, and then turns into a man again. It’s like a modern-day Orlando. I was interested in gender politics and sexual orientation politics. I’m your garden variety heterosexual. I was exploring that issue because I grew up in a sexist society and I had elements of that in myself and I didn’t like it, so I tried to root it out by exploring the feminine other. The next book—it will be called The High Mountains of Portugal. Once again, I’ll be using animals—rhinoceroses and chimpanzees. I want to look at the role of great teachers. What do we do when great teachers go away? How do we keep their teaching living? How do we not let it fall into dogma? Each book I write has been an attempt to understand something, to explore something.
R: Is picking the animals an intuitive thing or a process?
Y: Oh, it’s a process. For example, Life of Pi, it wasn’t initially a tiger. At first, it was going to be an elephant. Then it was a rhinoceros, and I was quite happy with the rhino, and then I needed a carnivore because I couldn’t see how I would keep a herbivore alive in the Pacific. It had to be a carnivore, so I switched to a tiger. Beatrice and Virgil, I needed animals to sympathetically represent Jews. Monkeys are held to be clever and nimble and socially adept, so that could represent Jewish intellectualism. At the same time, Jews have endured despite centuries of anti-Semitism. What animal makes me think of being honestly stubborn? And then I thought, well, the donkey. So, those came as a result of trying to find an equivalent. The next book, I chose chimpanzees because they’re the closest genetically to human beings, and I chose rhinos.
More of the interview to follow--check back later.