Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil (Aphasia)

[The historian] tilted his head and peered at Henry over his glasses. “What’s your book about?”

Henry was thrown into confusion. An obvious question, perhaps, but not one that he could answer so easily. That’s why people write books, after all, to give full answers to short questions. And the bookseller had rankled him. Henry took and deep breath and collected himself. He tried his best with the historian’s question. But his answer came out in stammers and meanders. “My book is about representations of the Holocaust. The event is gone; we are left with stories about it. My book is about a new choice of stories. With a historical event, we not only have to bear witness, that is, tell what happened and address the needs of ghosts. We also have to interpret and conclude, so that the needs of people today, the children of ghosts, can be addressed. In addition to the knowledge of history, we need the understanding of art. Stories identify, unify, give meaning to. Just as music is noise that makes sense, so a story is life that makes sense.”

“Yes, yes, perhaps,” the historian said, brushing Henry’s words aside, staring at him harder, “but what’s your book about?”

A buzz of nervousness shook Henry on the inside. He tried another tack, to do with the idea behind the flip book. “Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it’s true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn’t become story, it dies to everyone except the historian. Art is the suitcase of history, carrying the essentials. Art is the life buoy of history. Art is seed, art is memory, art is vaccine.” Henry could sense that the historian was about to interrupt him and he hurried along incoherently. “With the Holocaust, we have a tree with massive historical roots and only tiny, scattered fictional fruit. But it’s the fruit that holds the seed! It’s the fruit that people pick. If there is no fruit, the tree will be forgotten. Each of us is like a flip book,” Henry pursued, though it didn’t follow from what he was just saying, “Each one of us is a mixture of fact and fiction, a weaving of tales set in our real bodies. Isn’t that so?”

“I get all that,” the historian said with a trace of impatience. “But once again, what is your book about?

To that third iteration of the question, Henry had no answer. Perhaps he didn’t know what his book was about. Perhaps that was the problem with it. His chest rose as he breathed in heavily and sighed. He started at the white tablecloth, red-faced and at a loss for words… That was the whole meal, a blundering lurch from the frivolity of over-refined food to the dismemberment of his book, Henry quibbling and squabbling, they reassuring and wrecking, to and fro, back and forth, until there was no more food to eat and nothing left to say. It all came out, wrapped in the kindest words: the novel was tedious, the plot feeble, the characters unconvincing, their fate uninteresting, the point lost; the essay was flimsy, lacking in substance, poorly argued, poorly written. The idea of the flip book was an annoying distraction, besides being commercial suicide. The whole was a complete, unpublishable failure.

When at last lunch ended and he was released, Henry walked out in a daze… After a few minutes he came upon a park… As he wandered about the park, Henry awoke to what had just happened to him. Five years of work had been consigned to oblivion. His mind, stunned into silence, sputtered to life. I should have said this… I should have said that… Who the fuck was he…? How dare she…? – so the shouting match in his head went, a full-blown anger fantasy…

A moment came when the tense muscles twitching in Henry’s body and the emotions seething inside him came together and spoke in unison: with his fists clenched in the air, he lifted a foot and stamped the ground with all his might, at the same time letting out a choked-up sound from his throat. He hadn’t consciously decided to act out like this. It just happened, a snap expression of hurt, fury, and frustration. He was near a tree, the soil around it soft and bare, and the impact of his foot-stamping was thunderous, certainly to him, and a couple lying nearby turned his way because of it. Henry stood, amazed. The ground had trembled. He had felt the reverberations. The earth itself had head him, he thought. He looked up at the tree. It was a giant tree, a galleon with its sails in full rig, an art museum with its entire collection on display, a mosque with a thousand worshippers praising God. He gazed at it for several minutes. A tree had never before been so soothing to him. As he admired it, he could feel the anger and distress draining from him.

Henry looked at the people around him. Lone individuals, couples, families with children, groups; of every race and ethnicity; reading, sleeping, chatting, jogging, playing, walking their dogs – people varied yet at peace with one another. A peacetime park on a sunny day. What need was there to talk about the Holocaust here? If he found some Jews amidst this peaceable gaggle, would they care to have him gore their beautiful day with talk of genocide? Would anyone care to have a stranger come up to them whispering, “Hitlerauschwitzsixmillionincandescentsoulsmygodmygodmygod”? And hell, Henry wasn’t even Jewish, so why didn’t he mind his own business? Everything is context, and clearly the context was wrong. Why write a novel about the Holocaust today? The matter is settled. Primo Levi, Anne Frank, and all the others have done it well and for all time. “Let go, let go, let go,” Henry intoned. A young man in sandals walked by. Flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop went his feet, like the bookseller’s damning conclusion. “Let go, let go, let go,” Henry intoned.

…Henry realized then what answer he should have given the historian. His flip book was about having his soul ripped out and with it, attached, his tongue. Wasn’t that what every Holocaust book was about, aphasia? Henry remembered a statistic: fewer than two percent of Holocaust survivors ever write about or testify to their ordeal. Thus the typical approach of those who do speak about it, so precise and factual, like a stroke victim who’s learning how to speak again and who starts with the simplest, clearest syllables. For his part, Henry now joined the vast majority of those who had been shut up by the Holocaust. His flip book was about losing his voice.


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