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Yann Martel (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)
Yann Martel (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)

Yann Martel: Lost and found Add to ...

Martel is so wedded to the technique that he is currently writing a novel featuring three chimpanzees who dramatize the challenges of mentorship. "I'm really excited about it," he says.

But the main reason he went with animals this time is that they helped him escape a "literal approach to the Holocaust." Says Martel, "I thought, if I can't approach it in human disguise, I can approach it in animal disguise. That worked for me."

And if some readers interpret Beatrice and Virgil as a fable about animal extinction, so be it.

Except that they would be wrong: As the author-narrator of the novel makes clear with his own story, Beatrice and Virgil is essentially one long struggle to describe the indescribable.

"There's something incredibly story-defeating about the Holocaust," Martel acknowledges, channelling Henry's anxiety. There are an infinite number of war stories possible, he adds, but there seems to be only one Holocaust story - "the standard narrative of a so-so life, a train ride, and hell." There are no survivors, no variations.

"In genocide, character does not matter," Martel continues, emphasizing the biggest challenge it presents to the conscientious artist. "The Holocaust was an incredibly tragic event, but also completely impersonal. How do you tell a story about that?"

The author's unconventional solution - using a stand-in writer struggling with the same problem, animals in absurdist dialogues, and a taxidermist villain - belies the straightforward research that went into the novel. That included a visit to the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel and three separate visits to the killing fields of Auschwitz.

What Martel discovered at Auschwitz, with characteristic originality, was nothing. "If you spend a lot of time there, you realize it's just barracks," he says. "There's actually nothing there. … There's no evil in the place, there's only the evil you bring there."

Watching busloads of tourists come and go - everybody having a "big cry" and then rolling off to admire medieval Krakow - only persuaded Martel of the need for distance to make his point. "It is a highly charged event," he says. "Nonetheless, it strikes me that to get the lessons of the Holocaust, you have to get beyond those emotions and think your way through."

That's something people don't do often enough, Martel adds, which is why he wrote Beatrice and Virgil. "You think Holocaust, you think Auschwitz, where the whole evil is being compressed," he says. "You don't tend to think about what happened before - all the little strands that led to it."

Readers will be challenged to winnow those strands out of the novel, a deliberately fragmented pastiche that references historical events obliquely at best. It is about the Holocaust only because, the author admits, he couldn't find a suitably complete "escape" from the facts at hand.

Thus the book's climax leaves little doubt about the till-then murky roles of the animals and the taxidermist. They ultimately become actors in a literal genocide. "I could not escape that," Martel says apologetically. "It was my limitation."

He just couldn't bring himself to write a self-contained, easily interpreted "suitcase" of a political allegory like George Orwell's Animal Farm. "I didn't want to be quite so emotionally direct," he says. "I threw everything I could at it to try to write about the Holocaust without being literal." Including himself, in the guise of the rootless Henry.

Unlike Henry, Martel himself has put down roots of a sort since the extraordinary success of his breakthrough novel. Inspired by a French-Canadian aunt and uncle who moved to Saskatoon in the mid-sixties after a medical education in the United States, determined to practise socialized medicine, Martel and his British-born wife followed suit 30 years later, inspired in part by the same commitment to progressive politics. Eight months ago, Martel's uncle, Dr. Serge Martel, helped deliver Theo.

"The quality of life in Saskatoon is the highest I've seen anywhere," he raves. The light is "extraordinarily beautiful" and the landscape "subtle," blissfully free of view-blocking mountains. And it's a dry cold.

But as with so much else about the life of this chameleon character, the truth is changeable. Home is no simple concept to this author, nor a place he is spending much time in these days. "I've only two days in Saskatoon the next two months," he says, describing what he considers to be a bizarre request from British journalists to interview him in Saskatchewan. "They're coming to meet me here just to say they interviewed me at home!"

Clearly he would prefer to write his own story - leaving himself out of the picture. Sort of.

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