Monday, April 25, 2011

Martel defends the power of allegory

Originally printed February 27, 2011.

Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Yann Martel will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Iowa City Public Library.

Martel will be reading from his recent novel, "Beatrice and Virgil," an animal-based allegorical take on the Holocaust and the process of writing about the Holocaust. Not surprisingly, "Beatrice and Virgil" hasn't been received as warmly as was Martel's 2002 fantasy adventure novel, "Life of Pi."

I managed to get a hold of Martel on Friday as he was being driven to another reading. Here's an edited account of our conversation.

JCC: You've said that you're much more interested in stories with a capital "S" than stories with a small "s." What's the difference between the two.

YM: A story with a small "s" is a mere anecdote or mere entertainment. A Story with a capital "S" is grander thing -- something that explains life, that gives us direction, that gives us a sense of life.

The main example of capital "S" Stories would be religious stories, but they're also the grand political stories. The Story of George Washington is both history and story. The story starts to becoming mythological and eventually becomes a Story giving Americans a sense of who they are.

Stories take on a reality that becomes reality.

JCC: So why does allegory work for you as a way to move from stories to Stories?

YM: Allegory has a power of encapsulation. And it presents a reality that already is discontinuous.

When writing about the Holocaust, for example, the primary mode has been as an act of witness. And the dominant genre has been non-fiction and memoir.

With allegory, however, you can describe the tragedy more simply. You can get to the heart of the issue without becoming lost in the details.

Take "Animal Farm," a delightful allegory, in which George Orwell gives the essentials of what life was like under Stalin. It's not factually true because there are too many facts to render. Yet it stays true to the spirit.

In the same way, the Holocaust is just too much to take in by itself. It's too vast a canvas -- taking place over years, over several countries, involving millions of people.

You need to get it down to the essentials.

JCC: With so many negative reviews of the novel, it appears many critics disagree with what you consider the essentials of the Holocaust story.

YM: People don't seek out Holocaust stories for entertainment. They might see a new, big Hollywood movie on it or read a new memoir, but most people won't choose to go right up to the pit. And if they do, it's usually because they are looking for some cathartic experience.

As a result, we get all these books on the Holocaust that end up being so homogenuous.

And we get all these critics who come out and say that they "hate the book" -- or worse, that I'm somehow "trivializing the Holocaust."

I'm left amazed that we have all these literary critics -- all these professional readers -- who basically say that you can use allegory and metaphor for everything except the Holocaust.

JCC: What are you working on now?

YM. I'm working on my next novel, which is going to feature animals, because using animals is such a wonderfully versatile tool. It's going to be called "The High Mountains of Portugal" and it's going to feature a chimpanzee and a rhinoceros

Even though "Beatrice and Virgil" is a short novel, it took me so long to write because of all the limitations placed on me by the story.

Now I'm liberated from that, and I have same ambition and freedom I did when I wrote "Life of Pi."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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