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

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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