July 21st, 2009 / 3:11 pm
Author News & Behind the Scenes

Yann Martel and The Holocaust as genre

mattbriggsYou may have heard that Life of Pi author Yann Martel was given a rather huge contract for his next book. And that the book is being described as an allegory about the Holocaust with animals.

Seattle writer Matt Briggs, in a post on his blog, reacted with this:

It disturbs me that the Holocaust is or has become a genre, just as there is a British tea cozy mystery. Is this an inevitable progression, that a collective trauma becomes shtick? Is the pot boiler Western the equivalent reduction of the genocide of Native Americans?…Three million dollars seems like a lot of money to pay for anything besides a bridge or highway or something.

Intrigued, I asked Briggs to elaborate.

Can you expand on the idea of The Holocaust as genre? Schtick?

I mean specifically a genre like the type of label that is put on a book by a publisher and means certain things to readers, like fantasy, murder mystery, or Western. These stories fit into a kind of template with a certain sequence of events, a cast of characters, and a pay off. And so we have in a murder mystery, a body, our suspects, and the intrepid investigator who untangles the mystery, is not fooled by the red herrings, and eventually “unmasks” the killer. The Holocaust in its telling and retelling has become a similar story containing a similar rigid sequence and caste of characters. There is the history of antisemitism in Germany (and elsewhere), the gradual rise of the Nazi’s to power and gradual decrease in liberties in Germany. The Jewish families who remember previous pogroms leave the country. Those who cannot afford to leave or do want to leave their homes stay, and then there is the sequence of restrictions leading finally to the actual transportation, starvation, and destruction in the death camps. Both Maus and Schindler’s List can be seen as key works defining decoration, the tone, sequence, and types in the story, in the way that Arthur Conan Doyle’s defines the detective story or Tolkein defines the dominant strain of fantasy story.

I don’t see anything particularly wrong with this, although it makes the reality of what happened less and less accessible and more and more not necessarily mythological but “packaged” guess. At this point it is packaged such that you can hear a title such as “The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas” and know pretty much goes down. I think a movie such as “Life is Beautiful” is not really possible without the machinery of this genre in place.

By “schtick” I mean really the set pieces in the genre story. There is something comic, even if it is a really dark comedy, in repetition, and doubling. And so reading other stories of genocide, The Holocaust genre is evoked, such as “The Hotel Rwanda.”

In contrast, some of the direct coverage of what happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s is very different from what we have come to expect from a story in The Holocaust section of the bookstore. Hannah Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” is, well, kind of boring and really about a middle-manager who just wanted to get recognized for his efficiency and get a promotion, but in reading it you know he is never going to get that promotion. He never does.

So there is (again a sick and wrong) irony in retrospect of the call, “Never again,” mostly because genocide has become such a persistent fact of the behavior of countries, but also because even the specific narrative that this phrase “never again” was meant to apply to has become a genre, that is an endlessly repeatable story.

How does one avoid this? Is there a window, say? Something tragic happens. A little time passes. A window opens. Art is created in reaction to the tragedy. Time passes. The window shuts. More people write, but tend only to produce schtick? To follow story patterns? Unless you have a key to unlock the window, maybe—like Spiegelman had with Maus with his family connection?

I have no idea! It only occurred to me that maybe there is some possibility that collective trauma causes this to happen because of the weird similarities between the Western (about the genocide of Native Americans and their displacement by homesteaders) and the Tolkein Fantasy genre (about the ethnic warfare between light skinned and light people). Maybe history is written by the victors and genre stories are written by its victims? A key difference between Spiegelmann and Yann Martel is that Spiegelmann was the child of survivors and writing Maus in the way that he did was a way of approaching this material. He could make it strange enough to himself to write it down. Martel is refining a second or third hand story. Maybe genre is this ossification of supposed “real experience” into a rigid code and this ossification occurs by handing the story from one person to the next?

I say “supposed real experience” here because some writers think all experience is mediated through language, and so soon as something happens and you tell yourself what happened, it is no longer “real” but a made up thing, and this made up thing is what you think of as a “real experience.” I agree with this, even thought I think things actually happen in the physical world and they can be tested and verified. Columbus visited the Caribbean. This event happened. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

I also think that Spiegelman’s dad is probably a better source about the events of The Holocaust than Spiegelman, and in turn Spiegelman is a better source than Yann Martel. But I don’t think “reality” is of any concern to Martel. He is thinking about something else, maybe, some kind of refinement, an industrial process of ingesting existing stories, parsing them, and producing a transparent, delicious, deeply moving substance known as The Holocaust Genre that will sell three million dollars worth of quality paperbacks.


Thanks, Matt.

Watch me face off against Matt in Seattle’s first Literary Death Match on August 13 in The Rendevous’s Jewelbox Theater.

A list of Matt’s books here.

Matt on Twitter.

Matt is also a part of Reading Local Seattle.

the internet literature
magazine blog of
the future