Holocaust Narratives

"Beatrice and Virgil" Book Cover So without consciously intending to, I’ve read  several books about the holocaust recently. I read Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel, The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak and MAUS by Art Spiegelmann. All turned out to be great books and all turned out to be about the holocaust but they told their stories in very different ways.

Beatrice and Virgil is a new departure from Martels previous, bestselling work Life of Pi. I read Life of Pi years ago and loved it so I was looking forward to more of the same, a fantastical story with well developed characters involving animals. Instead Martel bludgens us over the head from the get go with his overrriding message that traditional narratives are unable to capture an experience as horrific as this with any degree of accuracy. Which is fair enough in itself and despite a few episodes apparently added to pad out the book (like the essay on taxidermy) I really enjoyed it. He found thoroughly original ways of describing horror and I enjoyed his theories about how writing needed to change to reflect this (I will not go into his methods here to avoid spoilers but they were truly original). However, I still have a few issues with the book:

1. the extremely abrupt ending, it did not seem to fit in with the rest of the book and for days I was unsure if i liked it or not, if I could make it fit with the rest of the characters or not.

2. there were a few episodes in the book that seemed to add nothing to either the plot, the characterisation or his overrriding message. (such as the essay on taxidermy, the scene near the end with his cat and dog or the protracted description of flip books at the start)

The thing is I’m not sure if these issues are even issues. He could easily have added them on purpose to show how perplexing these events are, how random some events can seem, how monotony can reign at the heart of violence or any number of things like that.

Though the book did have issues I ultimately liked it because it made me uncertain.


Holocaust NarrativesThen I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I think it’s a young adult book but it again deals with some dark and complex things. I like that it doesn’t talk down to it’s demographic like so many others I read recently. It’s about a girl living in Germany during world war two and it’s narrated by Death.

The authors’ concept of death is strikingly original, even moving at points. the story is full of intergections from him that add variety to the self-conscious narrative. Though the book was never going to end happily Zusak fills it with all degrees of emotion, giving yet another unique perspective on one of the most devastating events of recent history.

Next I read MAUS. And again I found a startlingly original way of telling the same story. The Nazis are depicted as cats, the Jews as mice and panel after panel, picture after picture, Art Interviews his Father on his life in GErmany during the Holocaust and we get a deeply moveing multilayered story not only of the Holocaust itself but of survivors guilt and how people like Art and indeed myself, who never went through anything like this, had extremely easy lives in the aftermath of such trauma, try to understand it.

I feel I’ve gone on too long, but this is a topic I will return to again, narratives of trauma and how art constantly finds new ways to tell the same story. How, fifty years later, this story is still relevant and still evolving with each telling.