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Martel's creatures explore very human questions

In the province of lower back, in a country called shirt, a red howler monkey named Virgil tells a donkey named Beatrice about pears.

This is part of "A 20th Century Shirt," a play written by a taxidermist named Henry, who seeks the assistance of an established writer, also named Henry, in the novel "Beatrice & Virgil."

Yann Martel - Submitted photo by Geoff Howe

In the province of lower back, in a country called shirt, a red howler monkey named Virgil tells a donkey named Beatrice about pears.

This is part of "A 20th Century Shirt," a play written by a taxidermist named Henry, who seeks the assistance of an established writer, also named Henry, in the novel "Beatrice & Virgil."


Yes, yes, I know.

Forty-five pages into Yann Martel's "Beatrice & Virgil," I had no idea what the author was doing.

I especially had no idea how the play-inside-a-novel, and the story of the two Henrys, might connect to the Holocaust - although I had been promised by the publisher's materials that it would.

By the time I was less than halfway through seven pages of animal dialogue on fruit, I was ready to throw the book into my started-but-never-finished pile of forgotten titles.

However, I was reminded, Martel had written "Life of Pi" - the 2002 Man Booker Prize-winning novel that sold a staggering 700,000 copies in Canada and about 7 million copies worldwide.

As well, the author was scheduled to appear at a PEN Canada fundraiser in St. John's on April 10, to discuss his latest novel.

I could speak with him and write a piece for the paper.

I had to read the book.

So I kept "Beatrice & Virgil," finished it - and was floored.

It is a relatively short work and the 200 pages run by quickly.

It was about a minute after connections between the Henrys, a hand gesture, dramas, 68 Nowolipki Street and "Games for Gustav" came into focus, that I realized I was holding my breath.

I had to remind myself to exhale.

Martel's writer-on-writer, fun-with-animals fiction had become an astonishing and heartbreaking masterwork for me, a flashpoint for discussion of memory, history, complacency and understanding.

Now, all that may sound pretentious and ridiculous, but so, initially, did the concept of "A 20th Century Shirt."

A Holocaust tale

I spoke with Martel last week by phone, interrupting pre-book tour vacation time with his family in Oxfordshire, England.

His is a book with the Holocaust at its hub, written by "a non-Jew, non-survivor ..."

"While 'Life of Pi' was so easy to write, this was particularly torturous," Martel said of "Beatrice & Virgil."

The larger subject matter had created a hurdle.

The history surrounding the Holocaust is readily available, the collective information of events widespread. So how does an author research, write and create with what is already known?

Then again, why would Martel take on the topic at all?

"I write books that help me understand something," he said.

"I have no relationship, no personal relationship with the Holocaust." Yet, in writing "Beatrice & Virgil," he connects himself and others to the events.

"This one started as a play. I wrote the whole play out - there's a whole play, but it doesn't work," Martel said, admitting it was, in fact, "A 20th Century Shirt."

He then began developing a second piece - a non-fiction essay.

He toyed with the idea of a "flip book," an idea explained in detail by one of the Henrys in the beginning of "Beatrice & Virgil." It did not work for Martel.

Still not satisfied, the author sat on his ideas until he came across an article in the New York Times.

It was about a taxidermist's shop.

"I completely rewrote the book in three months," he said, explaining how inspiration had struck.

He completed his follow to "Life of Pi."

Talking with the animals

Like "Life of Pi," "Beatrice & Virgil" uses animal characters.

"I just found it makes it easier to tell the story," Martel said of his unconventional convention.

"As I say in my novel - we're very cynical of our own species." He added that readers tend to have human actions and behaviours set in their minds. If a character does this, he must then feel this, do that.

In using animals, the readers' disbelief of certain actions starts to lift, Martel said.

As well, "not very many writers of adult fiction use animals," he said. There is a creative challenge there, as well as the benefit of novelty.

"My next book is also using animals." The text will feature three chimpanzees, in Portugal. It will look at the "great teachers in our lives."

"Especially what happens when the teacher goes away, when the teacher dies," he said, making specific reference to Jesus and his disciples.

PEN Canada fundraiser

For now, Martel is on tour to promote "Beatrice & Virgil."

The tour will keep him busy, too busy to continue with his long-running campaign of book recommendations to Prime Minister Stephen Harper (he is currently having fellow Canadian writers step in on his behalf).

Martel said he plans to continue his mail project until Harper is finished in the office.

The idea, he said, is to feed the imagination of the country's leader.

"A nation is not a corporation. A nation is a dream. ... It's in part an imaginative thing," he said. "That part, I feel, is really undernourished."

The letters to Harper have already led to a non-fiction title, "What is Stephen Harper Reading?" (2009).

To see the latest recommendations for Harper, go to:

Meanwhile, as part of Martel's book tour and as a member of PEN and a contributor to the organization, Martel will take part in a PEN Canada fundraiser on Saturday, April 10, at the Reid Theatre at Memorial University in St. John's.

"I strongly believe in what they do," Martel said of PEN.

The group promotes free expression and speaks for imprisoned and exiled writers.

The fundraiser will be hosted by Mary Walsh, who will introduce Martel. The author of "Beatrice & Virgil" will then be interviewed on stage by fellow author and journalist Ian Brown (author of "The Boy in the Moon").

Tickets are $20 and Martel said he hopes to speak to interested readers. For more information, phone 737-2435.

If you are unable to attend, "Beatrice & Virgil" is available in bookstores this weekend.

Martel's Books

"The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories," published in 1993
"Self," 1997
"Life of Pi," published in 2002
"We Ate The Children Last," published in 2004
"What is Stephen Harper Reading?" published in 2009
"Beatrice & Virgil," published in 2010

Organizations: Beatrice & Virgil, PEN Canada, New York Times Reid Theatre

Geographic location: St. John's, Canada, 68 Nowolipki Street Oxfordshire England Portugal

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