'Life Of Pi' Author's New Book Asks What Happened

How are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it's over? That question is at the heart of Yann Martel's new novel Beatrice and Virgil. Host Liane Hansen interviews Martel about his new book, his first novel since the Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

How are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it's over? That question is at the heart of Yann Martel's new novel, "Beatrice and Virgil." At the heart of that question is another: what happened?

In this fiction, the big event is the Holocaust, and the question is asked by several characters, not the least of which is Henry, a bestselling critically acclaimed writer whose first book earned him piles of money and legions of fans - not unlike the author of "Beatrice and Virgil."

Yann Martel wrote "Life of Pi," which won the 2002 Booker Prize, was translated into 40 languages and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 57 weeks. Yann Martel is in our Washington studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. YANN MARTEL (Author, "Beatrice and Virgil,"): Hello.

HANSEN: There are two parts to the book, it seemed to me as I was reading it, and the first is about Henry the writer and his desire to write another piece of fiction. And it's a flip book on the Holocaust. Explain, first of all, what a flip book is.

Mr. MARTEL: A flip book would be a book with two sets of distinct pages that are brought together back-to-back upside down. So, in other words, it's a book with two front covers. So, if you flip your thumb through a flip book, you'll eventually get to pages that are upside down 'cause you're looking at the other book. So you have to flip the book over.

The reason I wanted to do that is I wanted to look at the Holocaust from every conceivable angle, both fictional and non-fictional. So, I wrote a novel in the form of a play and then I wrote an essay.

HANSEN: Yeah. A flip book always - I mean, a lot of kids books are published like flip books. And I wondered by taking on such a momentous event as the Holocaust, trying to write about it in a flip book reduces perhaps the idea of writing about it into an absurdity.

Mr. MARTEL: Well, I like the idea of a flip book 'cause in a sense when you're holding a flip book the book is always half-upside down and symbolically I kind of like the idea. When you eventually get to a central part, you haven't finished, you can't escape. You have to flip the book over and read again. So, there's no escape.

HANSEN: Henry's publishers hated it.

Mr. MARTEL: Yes, yes.

HANSEN: And Henry quits. He decides to take a job in a chocolate shop. He acts with an amateur theater company. I'm curious: what did you do between "Life of Pi" and this book?

Mr. MARTEL: Well, I lived my life. The success of "Life of Pi" took two years of my life touring and all that. It's a book that really connects with a lot of people. I also have an eight-month-old son, that's taken some of my time. I've also been writing the prime minister of Canada every two weeks for the last three years sending him a book also, and with that book a letter explaining why I chose that book.

HANSEN: Do you know if he's reading them?

Mr. MARTEL: Well, I have not received a single response from him, meanwhile I get a letter from Barack Obama. Barack Obama wrote me a little handwritten note about "Life of Pi" saying he and his daughter had read it and they had enjoyed it.

HANSEN: One of Henry the writer's fans is another Henry, a taxidermist. And he stuffed a howler monkey, Virgil, and a donkey, Beatrice. He's written a play and asks the writer Henry to help him. So, my question to you, Yann Martel: Have you written plays and why did you name them Beatrice and Virgil?

Mr. MARTEL: Very early on when I started writing, yes, I wrote a few plays. But in this case, yes, I did write an entire play featuring Virgil and Beatrice and it simply didn't work, in part 'cause there were things that I wanted to say that I couldn't say in the play. So, what I did is I completely rewrote it and I added this layer of the taxidermist and the writer.

So, as you mentioned earlier, Henry the writer eventually stops writing and the taxidermist is having problems with his play. So, to have two people who in some ways are at a loss for words suited my purpose when discussing the Holocaust. You always hear people at a loss for words, you know - it is unimaginable, there are no words for - expressions like that occur all the time.

You ask why Beatrice and Virgil, well it's from "Dante's Inferno," Dante's divine comedy. They're the two guides of Dante through hell, purgatory and heaven and the divine comedy is another fantastic allegory.

HANSEN: I'm speaking with Yann Martel, author of the new novel, "Beatrice and Virgil." Why the Holocaust? I mean, you were born in Spain, you live in Canada. Do you have a personal connection?

Mr. MARTEL: No, none whatsoever. I'm not Jewish. Both sides of my family have been in Quebec for 300 years, so I'm a complete outsider, which was another issue in fact. Because if you start researching the Holocaust, it frightens me a little bit how overwhelmingly it is the victims and their descendants who comment on it. Of course, it's overwhelmingly a Jewish drama but it's also a human drama. And so the dialogue has to go beyond that.

It'd be as if every single book on rape were written by a woman or every single book on racism in America by an African-American. You know, ultimately, the dialogue has to take in many, many people. So, I needed an outside - another disguise. And I thought, well, if I can't approach it in human disguise, here I can do it in animal disguise.

HANSEN: Do you read your reviews?

Mr. MARTEL: Yes and no. It's interesting, this book has been very divisive 'cause there was a terrible review in the New York Times, a terrible review in the Washington Post and a terrible review in the San Francisco, I think it's called the Chronicle, Im not sure.

HANSEN: Yes.

Mr. MARTEL: Then there was an extremely positive in other papers - the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I think it was called, a very good one in the Huffington Post, I think it's called, which is interesting and perhaps to be expected. We are very cautious about the Holocaust, which of course we should be. But let's compare it with war.

The Second World War, by conservative estimates, cost the lives of 20 million people on the Allied side alone. I'm not talking about the Axis death and I'm not talking about the Jewish death. And yet we don't hesitate to tell, you know, to relate war comedies. You know, we use war as a stage for any number of stories, many of which will, you know, make light of the realty of war.

So, my approach in no way is an attempt to lighten the horror of that. It's on the contrary. You can't keep on telling it in the same way. Right now, because it's still relatively fresh, we still have survivors, our knowledge is still, you know, relatively good. But we forget these great tragedies and we move on, and then what we are left with are its representations. And if you only have the same kind of representations, I'm afraid that a certain automatic kind of reaction will set in.

You know, Primo Levy, at the end of the life was often going to schools, and, you know, he'd be asked by children, for example, you know, why didn't you just leave? Why didn't you just escape? You know, didn't you see it coming? You know, you're a chemist, you're an educated man, why didn't you just leave? And he would say, well, listen, you know, 1938 Europe was very different from 2000 and whatever, and most people didn't have passports.

You know, people will make things that don't sit well perhaps but you have to talk to them. You have to be in dialogue. So, this book is an attempt to be in dialogue. It isn't an attempt to create a small suitcase of the Holocaust, just a few essential elements. And if you're then interested, then you can go and read the big books. But it is an attempt to transform the Holocaust into a story.

HANSEN: Yann Martel is author of the new novel "Beatrice and Virgil" and he joined us in our Washington studio. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. MARTEL: My pleasure.

HANSEN: You can read an exchange between the title characters Beatrice and Virgil and find a review of Yann Martel's new novel at our website, NPR.org.

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Excerpt: 'Beatrice And Virgil'

Beatrice and Virgil
Beatrice and Virgil
By Yann Martel
Hardcover, 224 pages
Spiegel & Grau
List price: $24

(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.

(Pause.)

BEATRICE: I've never had a pear.

VIRGIL: What?

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.

BEATRICE: No?

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.

VIRGIL: No, not at all. A pear isn't yellow in so bright, lustreless and opaque a way. It's a paler, translucent yellow, moving towards beige, but not creamy, more watery, approaching the visual texture of a watercolour wash. And the spots are sometimes brown.

BEATRICE: How are the spots distributed?

VIRGIL: Not like the spots on a leopard. It's more a matter of areas of shadowing than of real spots, depending on the degree of maturity of the pear. By the way, a ripe pear bruises easily, so it must be handled with care.

BEATRICE: Of course.

VIRGIL: Now the skin. It's a peculiar skin, the pear's, hard to describe. We were speaking of apples and bananas.

BEATRICE: Yes.

VIRGIL: They have smooth, slippery skins.

BEATRICE: They do.

VIRGIL: A pear does not have so smooth or slippery a skin.

BEATRICE: Really?

VIRGIL: It is so. A pear has a rougher skin.

BEATRICE: Like an avocado's?

VIRGIL: No. But since you mention avocados, a pear is somewhat shaped like an avocado, although the bottom of a pear is usually plumper.

BEATRICE: Fascinating.

VIRGIL: And a pear becomes thinner in its top half in a more pronounced way than an avocado does. Nonetheless, the two fruits are more or less similar in form.

BEATRICE: I see the shape clearly.

VIRGIL: But you cannot compare their skins! An avocado's skin is as warty as a toad's. An avocado looks like a vegetable with leprosy. The pear is characterized by a thin roughness, delicate and interesting to the touch. If you could magnify it a hundred times, do you know what it would sound like, the sound of fingertips running over the skin of a dry pear?

BEATRICE: What?

VIRGIL: It would sound like the diamond of a record player entering a groove. That same dancing crackle, like the burning of the driest, lightest kindling.

BEATRICE: A pear is surely the finest fruit in the world!

VIRGIL: It is, it is! That's the skin of a pear for you.

BEATRICE: Can one eat it?

VIRGIL: Of course. We're not talking here of the waxy, thuggish skin of an orange. The skin of a pear is soft and yielding when ripe.

BEATRICE: And what does a pear taste like?

VIRGIL: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes a fragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lying in the lightness of its impression upon the olfactory sense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or cinnamon?

BEATRICE: I can.

VIRGIL: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on the mind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested, spellbound, and a thousand and one memories and associations are thrown up as the mind burrows deep to understand the allure of this beguiling smell — which it never comes to understand, by the way.

BEATRICE: But how does it taste? I can't wait any longer.

VIRGIL: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.

BEATRICE: Oh, that sounds good.

VIRGIL: Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark.

BEATRICE: I must have one.

VIRGIL: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet another difficult matter to put into words. Some pears are a little crunchy.

BEATRICE: Like an apple?

VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to . . . kissing.

BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.

VIRGIL: The flesh of a pear can be slightly gritty. And yet it melts in the mouth.

BEATRICE: Is such a thing possible?

VIRGIL: With every pear. And that is only the look, the feel, the smell, the texture. I have not even told you of the taste.

BEATRICE: My God!

VIRGIL: The taste of a good pear is such that when you eat one, when your teeth sink into the bliss of one, it becomes a wholly engrossing activity. You want to do nothing else but eat your pear. You would rather sit than stand. You would rather be alone than in company. You would rather have silence than music. All your senses but taste fall inactive. You see nothing, you hear nothing, you feel nothing — or only as it helps you to appreciate the divine taste of your pear.

BEATRICE: But what does it actually taste like?

VIRGIL: A pear tastes like, it tastes like . . . (He struggles. He gives up with a shrug.) I don't know. I can't put it into words. A pear tastes like itself.

BEATRICE: (sadly) I wish you had a pear.

VIRGIL: And if I had one, I would give it to you.

(Silence.)

Excerpted from Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel Copyright 2010 by Yann Martel. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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