Skip to main content

BOOK REVIEW: Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 03, 2010

Author: Yann Martel

According to a website, the Middle East, race relations, gun control, origins of man and religion are among the top 10 things that can never be discussed online “without serious drama following shortly thereafter”.

“The systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborator,” otherwise known as the Holocaust, is number four on this list.

Their reasoning is simple: whichever side you are on, this one topic is a guaranteed firestarter.

Yann Martel is not just talking about the fourth item on the list but is also seeking a new venue altogether to stage his ‘representation’ of that event. To know how he intends to take on such a delicate subject and why it took him eight years to write another book, one must meet Henry.

Henry L’Hote, the main character of this book, is an author headed back in time to retrieve the essence of the Holocaust — he looks suspiciously like Yann Martel, an author bound for similar shores. Henry’s idea will get rejected in the storybook world and Martel’s allegorical treatment, that attempted to push boundaries with a novel and essay, has already been through a similar ordeal. According to an interview by Mick Brown that appeared in the Telegraph, Martel’s original book consisted of a play and an essay. After the rejection, he rewrote the entire novel, working fragments of the play in with the other elements to create Beatrice and Virgil.

Henry/Yann will lay the groundwork at the outset to defend their controversial approach and explain why they believe that interpretation of historical events is vital. His reasoning is simpler: “No poetic licence was taken with — or given to — the Holocaust; it was always historical, factual, documentary, anecdotal, testimonial, literal.” Until now.

Henry, like Martel, has dared to blur the lines between fact and fiction with a flipbook that will have two covers, two sets of distinct pages attached to a common spine, upside down and back to back to each other. He is convinced that “fiction and non-fiction are not so easily divided” and “if history does not become a story, it dies to everyone”. In his mind, “fiction may not be real but it is true; it goes beyond a garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truth.”

The protagonist has it all figured out but unfortunately he hits a brick wall because Martel’s fictional world also imposes the same limitations. Henry makes a useful spokesperson, standing by, ready with explanations to help readers grasp Yann’s concept while he duels with his own editors (four), a historian and a bookseller trying to make them see the merits of his own approach. They, in turn, give all the reasons his flipbook model is a “complete and un-publishable failure”.

Poor Henry must renounce the idea. Undeterred by his failed flipbook experiment, a determined Yann sets out to prove them wrong and show them why it is imperative to capture that particular instance, not just with a historian’s preciseness but also with an artist’s flair. He stops to give instances where “artists have taken vast sprawling tragedies before, found its heart and represented it in a non-literal compact way. The unwieldy encumbrance of history was thus reduced and packed in a suitcase.” He goes on to imagine “art as a suitcase — light, portable, essential” and wonders why “such a treatment was not possible, or deemed necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe’s Jews?”

Having made a strong case for his ideas, Man Booker prize winner and best-selling author Yann Martel can proceed with the original plan; manipulate Henry — the highly successful writer — helping him find a way to scale the wall of resistance put up by an ignorant world, that will allow them to revisit and ‘interpret’ the horror and guide readers through the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

He uses unorthodox methods and the same topsy-turvy logic to achieve what his character initially failed to do. A disillusioned and dejected Henry allows the author to set a course that takes him away from a disastrous lunch to an unnamed city and, as the Holocaust slowly recedes in the distance, a way to represent the tragedy as an artful metaphor appears on the horizon.

The book is beautifully crafted with a riveting storyline that will take a circuitous path before it returns to the original premise of framing the Holocaust differently.

The author, whose last book was the internationally acclaimed Man Booker prize wining Life of Pi, is on a slippery slope here. Yet, despite the hostile reception, negative reviews and the disturbing end, Beatrice and Virgil cannot be dismissed lightly. The book is impossible to forget.

Spiegel & Grau; First Edition; Pp 224; Rs 850


Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

FILM REVIEW: West Bank Story a live-action short film (2007)

Published in The POST May 17, 2007

Directed by:Ari Sandel
Written by: Kim Ray and Ari Sandel
Duration: 21 Minutes
(An official selection of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival)

The Middle East is better known for staging violent uprisings, certainly not for inspiring comedic masterpieces.

Since 1967, the West bank has spawned a surge in Arab hostility, frequent visits to the Middle East by Condoleezza Rice and lately, a small little inspirational musical comedy about competing falafel stands, directed, co-written and produced by Ari Sandel (part Israeli, part American Californian native). Since there is no easy way to represent both sides fairly, the very notion of West Bank Story is greeted with a justifiable mix of scepticism, wariness and resentment at first. No doubt, it is a precarious balancing act that mandates such a film to be witty without being offensive, show compassion without discrimination and entertain without losing substance. So does West Bank Story deliver?

West Bank Story

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Sunset — The Rise & Fall of the Lahore Durbar Author: Amarinder Singh

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times under the heading: Lahore Durbar in free fall

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

After the Mughals exited, but before the British arrived, the Lahore Durbar was presided over by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Bahadur, affectionately known as the ‘Lion of Lahore’, who makes a brief appearance in Amarinder Singh’s narrative, but leaves a lasting impression on his history.

Ranjit Singh, who has been described in the book as a great man and an outstanding military commander, was a mass of contradictions. For instance, he was against the death penalty but not averse to robbing widows, believed treaties were meant to be broken but treated the vanquished with kindness, and thought nothing of inviting guests only to divest them of their most prized possession — like the Kohinoor diamond. He may have spent the better part of the day leading military campaigns, yet he did not always harbour territorial designs and is said to have waged a war on hi…

BOOK REVIEW: How It Happened

Published in Daily Times / Sat 9 Feb 2013

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Shazaf Fatima Haider

Thanks to Liberty Books for the (temp) review copy

Gwendolen: I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, mamma.

Lady Bracknell: Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .”
The Importance of being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)

Characters chasing ‘happily ever after’s’ are often pulled aside by enterprising elders who try to flag all but the most traditional road to the altar. A fiendishly funny narrative pounces on the retreating figure of Cupid and explores his cultural relevance in the sport they call match-making.

The saga of the Bandian clan comes with a perpetually scandalized, formidable old lady fiercely protective…

OP-ED: Fashion Week – More Than A Pretty Footnote

First Published in Economic Affairs June 2013 Issue

‘Artists are the gatekeeper of truth. We are civilizations radical voice’. Paul Robeson

There was a conference on counter-terrorism underway in Hyderabad as fashion week was winding down in Lahore. One of the presenters, a Dutch with a Phd and a thesis on the effects of fear on social behavior had indicated resilience as part of the counter-terrorism strategy. ‘We had a fashion show, does that count?’ I later asked Dr. Mark Dechesne who was in town recently. If he was startled, he did not show it.

Two things have been trending on twitter since April 2013. Fashion week finds itself in the same time slot as politics and as politicians perfect their strut on the political ramp, the fashionistas have taken to the red carpet and designer-wear floods the catwalk. Though fear overshadows both events, people refuse to let the claustrophobic environment dictate their social calendar.

The famed fashion week which started from Karachi and co…

OP-ED: Stargazing at the Awards

Published in Daily Times / 11 Apr 2014

So which one of them is Pakistani?
Some of us were having a hard time putting a name to the music.
All of them,’ said the person sitting next to us, a little reproachfully.
The musical performances? oh that, none of them, he said cheerfully.
He did not seem shocked.

We had gathered that day to witness the 2nd Servis HUM Awards, celebrate the showbiz industry with its requisite fashion parades and indulge in some star gazing at the EXPO Centre, Karachi.

The show had been designed to honour the best of Pakistani music, fashion, film, and of course television. Guests glided across the hall in awe of the décor (flawless) and set pieces (stunning) while keeping an eagle eye on the red carpet for a Fawad Khan or Hamza Ali Abbasi sighting (rare).

Timely adverts running on OSN ensured that a regional audience awaited the telecast with bated breath along-side the rest of HUM fans. The ceremony was not LIVE but Twitter would be abuzz with activity e…

STYLE: A ‘Haute’ Ticket Item

Published in Daily Times Pakistan (Entertainment Section) / 26 Oct 2013

Your talent will get you far, but your passion will get you further” – Tabassaum

Bath island - turns out, not really an island; it is a place where one can find, among other things Tabassum Mughal’s outlet and her shiny new salon. Her signature piece was featured in Bridal Couture 2013 (BCW) earlier this year. Her collection was later seen on London’s runway. And a bewitched crowd now circles her new line for Eid, drawn by a certainty that behind the closed doors lay the proverbial ‘one’.

They are not wrong. As she unveils a new vision of silk & satin to the world, there will be a constant embedded in that impeccable fashion statement. She has achieved a wonderful hybrid harvested from the rich heritage and decadent flavors that define our poorly misunderstood region.

The person in-charge of these creative coups can be seen flitting in and out of the situation room – otherwise known as the exhibit…