By GREG MAFFETT
Published: August 26, 2010
This is in part a review of Yann Martel’s book Beatrice and Virgil. It is also the answers to the game he poses at the end of the book.
First off, I’ll share my brother’s review of the printed version of the book “Martel is what Bukowski could have been and what Wallace should have been.” The arguments there being that Bukowski was limited by his environment and Wallace was limited by committing suicide. At least that is how interpreted that terse review.
My review is not aout the printed version, I listened to the the books on tape version. When I passed my comments on to my brother he suggested that “The print version is all about flow, the words in my head were all brilliant.” But the words on the tape lost something. Specifically disks 3 and 4 really reeked on tape.
Martel starts with a great idea. Of course by great idea I mean an Idea that occurred to me and about which I did nothing. His idea had to do with the slew of realistic films about the Holocaust. He was as repulsed by this as I was, but his response was different. I thought the response was to avoid any such films to the end of time as they had become the cliché of clichés. He response was to create a fictional work on stage vice a realistic film. So far, this is genius.
The first part of the book he assume the role of a writer writing about writing. Tough beat, but he drills it. I listen to disk 1 while driving back and forth to work. I find myself crying four times, each time it is the beauty of his words and his love for language. I’m with him every step of the way. I’m thinking this book may be better than his Booker Prize Winning Life of Pi.
I really liked that book a lot. Actually, if I recall, it was three books. Book 1 was ok, it was the first third of the book and it was a very upbeat Rodney King 'can’t we all just get along' book about world religion. The book was written in 2002, and the link to the post 9-11 world was clear and crisp. But that part didn’t resonate with me entirely. I liked the sentiment and his vision was great, but the reality is that killing people over religion is a well developed hobby among most organized religions. And, as the 8 subsequent years have shown, it is not something that a novelist is going to fix. But thumbs up for trying. Part two of Life of Pi is where is took wing, great story there. Then the final third certainly defined him as a writer. He deserved the Booker. I went back and read a couple of his shorter pieces after that. A piece about a classical music in Washington, DC and another piece about a cancer patient were both spot on. The man can write circles around this humble engineer.
Then I got to disks 3 and 4. Oh my. Here the wheels fall off on the audio version. It’s not Buke and Wallace. Now it is Chabon and Beckett and Brooks. I hear him use Michael Chabon’s vocabulary in describing things and my mind starts to wander. Is this Kavalier and Klay? Then I hear his play start and it is Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the stuffed animal version. Then as the older eastern European voice starts to drone I’m hearing Mel Brooks musical “Springtime in Germany for Hitler…” as I try to offset the agony somehow.
It really wasn’t working for me on those two disks, but even then, he would drop a graph or two that reminded me he really is one of the best writers of our times, even when he was writing a book that was not working for me.
Somewhere in disk 5 he pulled me back from the edge and I made the finish. I had stopped cheering for characters to be wiped out as a way of putting me out of my misery. Still as they dropped I got the feeling that Eastern European depression was lifting. I was OK.
Per his Bio, Martel was a Philosophy major, not English. Those guys over in that department are the liberal arts versions of us EE's. Way too smart for their own good at times. Gifted at reasoning, perhaps a little better at verbal reasoning than math reasoning, but not that far off. I can see his refined logic being used in his approach to problem solving. I can track him well.
So that brings us to his beginning and ending. He wrote his first piece of fiction years after he finished Life of Pi. I get that, fiction is something that runs away from also. Then I wake up one morning and its back nipping at my heels. His first piece in years is what he used to end the book, very much he was ending with the beginning.
I don’t think that piece was written expecting a response. Which is when my Asperger's Syndrome kicked in and demanded that I respond to the game.
I’ll do a bit a paraphrasing here, preserving the essence of the game as Yann laid it out.
Game 1. Your family is starving and your 10 year old son tells you he has a way to acquire potatoes. But if he fails he will be killed. Do you let him go?
Of course you do! Yes our family is going to starve to death otherwise. But it’s not a yes/no question here. Sure he asked it that way to make it look hard. He could have asked the open ended question, what do you do? But he chose not to for a good reason. He didn’t want you to think, he wanted you to feel.
Sorry, I’m autistic and I don’t feel. But I do think. So here is the thinking answer. You, as the parent, ask what the plan is and you execute it. You have him follow a safe distance behind you in case it goes bad. Then he can see where the plan failed and try again after you die. You get two chances to save your family.
Game 2: Your job is to shave the heads of people who are about to be killed. You do this day in and day out. One day you see the wife and sister of a close friend. You embrace with joy in your eyes. They ask you, “What is going to happen to us?” What do you tell them?
“You are going a camp, there is a lice problem, we shave your hair to keep you from getting infested.”
Really, you have no choice here. Yes they are doomed, by why have them live their last hours with no hope and no hair? My brother is already doing that.
Game #3. You are holding your 6 year old granddaughter’s hand. You are she are not well from the long journey. You are taken to the ‘infirmary’ where the soldiers say you will be given a ‘pill’. The infirmary is a pit piled high with bodies, some still moving. The pill is a bullet that is fired into the back of people’s heads. There are 6 people ahead of you in line. Your granddaughter asks you a question. What is the question?
“Are we there yet?”
Game #4. An armed guard tells you to sing, you sing. He tells you to dance, you dance. He tells you to act like pig, you act like a pig. He tells you to lick his boots, you do. He tells you to _____, but you don’t understand it because it is in a foreign language. What do you do?
Stand up and kick him in the balls.
Game #5. You are ordered at gunpoint to strip. You are with your mother and father, both aged about 70, your wife, your cousin and your three teenaged children. Where do you look after you are stripped naked?
Ok, this is an easy one. You look at your wife’s breasts. Out of the corner of your eye you see your dad doing the same to your mom. He catches your eye and gives you a thumbs up. At the same moment, you both say “Nice rack”.
Game #6 You are about to die. Next to you is a stranger, he says something to you in a language you don’t understand. What do you do?
I’d go with a physical gesture, something that indicates I don’t understand the language, then I’d give the guy a hug and say “Goodbye” and nod.
Game #7 Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter’s head?
Tough one. Have to take this as a gas chamber problem. If it is a gas chamber, you are a dead man walking, so what is the point on the one hand. On the other, if it was reversed, you would want your daughter to step on your head if you were dead. You would never want to be useless to her, even after your death. So ok, this wasn’t that tough after all.
Game #8 After it is all over, you are sad. Sadness is all consuming. You want to escape it. What do you do?
Get my board, go surfing.
Game #9. After it is all over you meet god. What do you say to god?
You right yourself to full height and notice you are god’s height. You look in his eyes and see the burning intelligence that created the Universe. You look at his face and see eternal beauty. You smile and say “nice mirror”
Game #10 after it is over you are in front of a group of people, they all gasp and cover their mouths, then they roar with laughter. You realize that they are laughing at your suffering and your loss. What is your reaction?
Gasp, cover my mouth and then roar with laughter at them.
Game #11 you find that your community of 1650 people has been reduced to 122 people. All your extended family is dead, your possessions are gone, your house has been occupied by “them”. A new regime is in place and they talk of making amends and making a fresh start with your community. Do you go back home?
Of course I do. There are roughly 61 women there who need to be impregnated if we are to rebuild our community. I have much work to do.
Game #12 a doctor is talking. He is telling you about a pill that will erase all the recent horrors. But the pill also erases all the memories of your past. Do you take the pill?
Of course not! Unlike the people that think they were the only humans ever to suffer, I see the Aztecs and the Incas, the American Indians, The Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Chinese at Nanking. The difference between me and all the Holocaust filmmakers is that I don’t see the Holocaust as any more exceptional than any in the long string of atrocities that man has committed against man over our history.
So in the end, Martel started with a great idea. He wrote a lot of good words. But he bogged down in the middle with the same old horror that has been in every realism film about the holocaust. There was where the book died for me. He did bring it back to life with a solid ending and a fun game, but the reel problem us that none of the Holocaust film makers seems to want to stand up next to all the other nations that suffered atrocities and join hands. Instead they are always this lonely people, picked on unfairly and punished uniquely for no reason.
They may play with the general public. But you know, I’m autistic. I get that one can ‘feel’ isolated a lot. But I also know that is not reality, it’s just a feeling owned by a person who chooses to be disconnected.