Boyd Tonkin: Beasts, Nazis and modern taboos

The week in books
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Rarely can a novelist have followed up a Booker-winning global smash with a work that prompted such a howl of execration. True, when DBC Pierre tried to cap Vernon God Little with Ludmila's Broken English in 2006, many reviewers scoffed him straight back to the drawing-board. Still, that rebuff was but a silk-gloved stroke compared with the obloquy that has just descended on Yann Martel for Beatrice and Virgil. The author of Life of Pi had sought to merge a metafictional study of a bestselling writer stalled by his own success, a species of anthropomorphic animal fable and – for many critics, the suicidal killer blow – a reflection on the nature and prospects of Holocaust fiction today.

Some reviewers, like our own Matt Thorne, soberly considered the book as a literary experiment that fell flat. Others reached for the language of outrage and offence. Whether the verdicts deemed the book a mere blunder or something closer to an artistic crime, Beatrice and Virgil seems to have won almost no friends in the press – although, online, support looks stronger.

Having now got to know Martel's blocked novelist, wacky taxidermist and allegorical donkey and monkey, I must reluctantly join the chorus. For me, this boat – so unlike the raft of Pi – does not really float. Now, however, is the right moment for aVoltairean battle-cry. Martel's publisher, Canongate, has a radiant record as a home for brave, edgy, unsettling fiction. Long may that continue. And long may restless, self-questioning authors such as Martel warp and bend the received forms of the novel in quest of what his writer Henry calls "a new choice of stories" about the events and memories that shape our lives - the Holocaust included.

The Holocaust persists in literary culture as a sacred space and the site of a strong taboo. It can, as Martel's Henry knows, both bind the tongue with its enormity and give rise to a leaden language of reverential horror. Many writers beyond those he cites (such as Art Spigelman in Maus and Martin Amis in Time's Arrow) have pursued a crab-like strategy of approaching it via the indirect routes of fantasy or fable. They aim – as Martel, however imperfectly, also did – to sneak under our defences, bypass the blockage of inherited ideas, and so restore an emotional truth to this shrine of virtuous cliché.

Philippe Claudel's Brodeck's Report, the extraordinary winner of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, does exactly that. I would maintain that Claudel triumphs where Martel falls short. But I still honour the attempt to circumvent – as Henry says - "those preconceptions and stereotypes that lock people and stories into small boxes".

Some of Martel's critics assume a priori that to treat the Holocaust as the occasion for postmodern self-interrogation or avant-garde experiment will diminish its horror. You could argue that the very opposite is the case. Literature that openly confronts the unsayable quality of such malevolence and suffering has the honesty to discuss its own limits. The true delusion surely rests with those novelists – so warmly promoted by the prim sentimentalists in charge of most publishing – who imagine that you should tell a story about the murder of millions by modern bureaucracy and technology as a glib neo-Victorian melodrama.

Martel's Henry fails to cite a novel that might have helped to clinch his case. The great French experimentalist Georges Perec lost his mother to the Nazi extermination camps; his father died, as a soldier, from his wounds. His most celebrated fictional conceit, La Disparition, tells its tale of the hunt for missing Anton Voyl without the letter "e"; Gilbert Adair translated it with awesome, e-less virtuosity as A Void.

As Perec's admirers have noted, this linguistic stunt erects the emptiness of orphanhood into a kind of law, forbidding words of home such as mère, père and famille. So the tricksiest novel in the modern canon itself turns out to be a displaced story of the Holocaust. To be sure, Martel is no Perec. But better – far better - a brave, failed burlesque than mere sanctimonious kitsch.

Ballard comes to rest in the BL

It's hard to think of that genial outlaw JG Ballard as poster-boy for the government "Acceptance in Lieu" scheme - which, for 100 years, has encouraged executors of literary and artistic figures to donate works and papers to the nation. But Ballard's daughters Fay and Bea have indeed given a precious archive of manuscripts, letters and notebooks: 15 large storage boxes full, including a run of original manuscripts from The Drowned World to Miracles of Life. The British Library will house the cache, as Ballard (above) intended. How oddly gratifying, too, to see a Tory culture minister – Ed Vaizey – salute the legacy of the author of Crash. Whatever would Norman St John Stevas say?

New entries in the phone book

When the iPad launched in the UK, this column noted that many future users of electronic readers might be holding back from a purchase because they suspected that the definitive device for their purposes had not yet arrived. Tech-sceptic that I am, I still never quite expected that Apple would start to compete with itself for sectors of the e-reading market within a month. The iPhone 4 goes on sale in Europe from 24 June. And it will offer access to all titles in the iBooks store. According to early reviews, it promises a sharper and more comfortable reading experience than any "smartphone" so far. That's good news for the many potential buyers of e-books, at the light rather than heavy end of the spectrum, who only ever want to carry a phone-sized gadget around. They may now be able to buy the kind of kit they wanted all along. But what might Apple reply to anyone who had quelled doubts to buy an iPad in recent weeks? "Suckers!" I'd guess. Caveat emptor, as they don't often say in the labs of California.