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  • A Howl and a Black CatAllegory, Nonsense, and Ethics in Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil
  • Jenni Adams (bio)

In Yann Martel’s 2010 novel Beatrice and Virgil, the protagonist, Henry—an ironic alter ego of Martel himself—contends that, in contrast to the subject matter of war, which has been depicted in a variety of modes from thriller to comedy through to science fiction, the Holocaust occupies quite a rigidly restrictive—and realist—representational sphere: “No such poetic license was taken with—or given to—the Holocaust. That terrifying event was overwhelmingly represented by a single school: historical realism.”1 However, this is not, in fact, the case. Not only has the Holocaust been subjected to exactly the range of generic modes associated by Martel’s protagonist with the literature of war—the Holocaust thriller, the Holocaust romance, the Holocaust comedy—admittedly with varying degrees of acceptance on the part of critics—but the Holocaust is frequently, and increasingly, depicted in terms that indicate a flight from realism on the part of Holocaust writers.2 Problematizing any transparent “access” to these historical events, writers like Joseph Skibell, Art Spiegelman, Yoram Kaniuk, Michael Chabon, and David Grossman use nonrealist techniques including magic realism, the fantastic, and the surreal, raising key questions in the process concerning the relationship between representation, experience, and traumatic history.3 Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil—itselfa text combining nonrealist representation and Holocaust content—can be viewed in the context of this emerging tradition, though the degree to which it adopts a similar problematizing stance regarding representation [End Page 31] is open to discussion. This essay aims to take up this question, examining the relationship between trauma writing and two particular nonrealist representational modes in the process. With a focus on the interplay of allegorical and nonsensical strategies of representation and reading in Martel’s novel, I aim to explore these techniques’ comparative ethical merits: specifically, the degree to which either mode invites or models an ethically productive form of encounter between reader and text.

Trauma, Nonsense, and Framing in Holocaust Literature

I shall begin, however, by exploring briefly a few other instances of nonsense in Holocaust literature in order to better contextualize the subsequent analysis of Martel.4 One significant example is present in Jonathan Safran Foer’s third-generation American Jewish novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002), which details the experience of the protagonist Jonathan Safran Foer as he travels to Ukraine in search of Trachimbrod, the shtetl in which his grandfather lived before the war. This quest narrative is interwoven with a series of excerpts, written by the character of Jonathan, from a magic realist history of Trachimbrod, in which he imaginatively reconstructs the experience of his ancestors in what Marianne Hirsch would characterize as a project of postmemory.5 This magic realist chronicle incorporates extracts from the “Book of Antecedents,” a book of collective memory—a kind of living, continually evolving yizher-bukh—which the residents of Trachimbrod, in Jonathan’s fantasy, maintain. The “Book of Antecedents” includes a glossary of a series of actual and invented words, such as the nonsense or portmanteau word “ifactifice,” which is explained as follows:

Since the beginning of time, we (the Jews) have been looking for a new way of speaking. . . . (Words never mean what we want them to mean.) If we communicated with something like music, we would never be misunderstood, because there is nothing in music to understand. This was the origin of Torah chanting and, in all likelihood, Yiddish—that most onomatopoeic of all languages. It is also the reason that the elderly among us, particularly those who survived a pogrom, hum so often, indeed seem unable to stop humming, seem dead set on preventing any silence or linguistic meaning in. But until we find this new way of speaking, until we can find a nonapproximate vocabulary, nonsense words are the best thing we’ve got.6 [End Page 32]

This passage in many ways sums up the attitude of Foer and other magic realist Holocaust writers toward the possibility, and available modes, of Holocaust representation. In particular, it positions nonrealist forms of expression as ways of accommodating what trauma theorists regard as...


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