A Holocaust allegory told by a donkey and a howler monkey
Beatrice and Virgil:
by Yann Martel
Spiegel & Grau
$24.00 List Price
In an interview with The Onion in 2007, Yann Martel gave an unlikely description of his work in progress. It would be a book in two parts, he explained, a novel and an essay "published back-to-back, upside down, what the trade calls a flipbook. In other words, a book with two covers. And they'll have the same title: 'A 20th-Century Shirt.' They share the same fundamental metaphor to do with the shirt and to do with the laundry, and they both have to do with the Holocaust."
To treat the Holocaust in terms of laundry, or a shirt, or something—it sounds silly at best, offensive at worst. Yet it also sounds oddly true to the sensibility of Martel, as the world came to know it in his Man Booker Prize–winning novel Life of Pi (2001). That book, after all, featured a young boy who survived a shipwreck in the company of a hyena, a zebra, and a tiger named Richard Parker, and whose adventures included washing up on a man-eating island inhabited by meerkats. Martel's fiction has something in common with Henri Rousseau's painting: There is the same kind of naïveté and cloyingness, joined to utter conviction and singular vision (not to mention a love of wild animals). It would take that kind of writer to produce a book such as A 20th-Century Shirt, which, Martel went on to explain, would be "a story featuring a monkey and a donkey . . . set on a shirt."
Somewhere along the way, however, Martel must have changed his mind—or else the interview was laying the groundwork for the metafictional gamesmanship to come. Something called A 20th-Century Shirt does turn up in Martel's new novel,