Vox Tablet

Animal Planet

Yann Martel’s new novel features a donkey, a monkey, taxidermy, and a Holocaust allegory

April 12, 2010
An osteologist with animal heads at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in 1923.(Library of Congress)

An osteologist with animal heads at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in 1923.(Library of Congress)

Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi chronicled a young Indian man’s 227 days adrift at sea with a Bengal tiger. Part fable, part exploration of religion, ritual, and story-telling, it was a tremendous international success and earned Martel the prestigious Man Booker Prize. With his new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, Martel once again uses animals to tell his story. Ostensibly, the novel is about an acclaimed novelist who’s lost his calling and an aloof taxidermist who comes to him for literary advice. Within the novel is a play about a persecuted donkey, named Beatrice, and monkey, Virgil, whose circumstances come to look frighteningly similar to those of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust. Both the novel and the play within the novel probe the difficulty of representing historical events that are all but unimaginable. Martel spoke by phone with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry from a hotel in London, where he was on book tour, about the strengths and weaknesses of Holocaust literature as we know it, about the mixed messages of taxidermy, and about our over-identification with animals and under-identification with our own species.

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Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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