Ruth Franklin is the author of A Thou­sand Dark­ness­es: Lies and Truth in Holo­caust Fic­tion. She will be blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ings Vis­it­ing Scribe.

Ah, fall – the sea­son of hot apple cider, leaves crunch­ing under­foot, and … Jew­ish book fairs. As I write this, bleary and jet-lagged, I’ve just returned from San Francisco’s ter­rif­ic Jew­ish Book­fest, where I did an event with Yann Mar­tel. As much of the world’s read­ing pop­u­la­tion knows, Mar­tel is the author of Life of Pi, a saga about a boy strand­ed on a raft with a Ben­gal tiger, which won the Book­er a few years ago and prompt­ly became a run­away inter­na­tion­al hit. I, on the oth­er hand, just pub­lished my first book, a col­lec­tion of essays about Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture focused on the ten­sion between imag­i­na­tion and mem­o­ry in works by writ­ers such as Pri­mo LeviElie WieselJerzy Kosin­s­ki, and a num­ber of oth­ers. Heavy stuff, and not always what peo­ple want to be enter­tained with on a Sun­day afternoon.

Martel’s new nov­el, Beat­rice and Vir­gil, deals with the Holo­caust, so our pair­ing wasn’t quite as bizarre as it might seem. Still, I was more than a lit­tle anx­ious about the prospect of shar­ing the stage with such a promi­nent author. To his great cred­it, Mar­tel put me at ease imme­di­ate­ly. I don’t know what I was expect­ing an inter­na­tion­al super­star to look like, but cer­tain­ly not this slight, unas­sum­ing man dressed in blue jeans and leather jack­et who imme­di­ate­ly start­ed chat­ting away about Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture when we met at the air­port. Each of us had been read­ing the other’s book on the plane, it turned out, and we both emerged full of ideas and questions.

The open­ing of Martel’s nov­el describes the gen­e­sis of the book in a light­ly fic­tion­al­ized way, so I knew that he had spent much of the last half-decade or so obsessed with the very same sub­ject as I had: the dif­fi­cult ques­tion of how a cat­a­stro­phe like the Holo­caust can be rep­re­sent­ed in art. Ever since the first years after the war, when Theodor Adorno famous­ly pro­claimed that writ­ing poet­ry after Auschwitz was bar­bar­ic, there has been a deep-seat­ed uncer­tain­ty about the legit­i­ma­cy of such rep­re­sen­ta­tions, which many schol­ars and crit­ics have seen as a dis­tor­tion of the grim his­tor­i­cal truth: Art takes the sting out of suf­fer­ing,” as one the­olo­gian put it. How­ev­er, as I argue in my book, there’s real­ly no avoid­ing art. It’s sim­ply not pos­si­ble to say, as Elie Wiesel and oth­ers have done, that the only accept­able way to rep­re­sent the Holo­caust is through tes­ti­monies or mem­oirs, because even these works — if they are effec­tive­ly writ­ten — are pro­found­ly shaped by cre­ative imag­i­na­tion. Every canon­i­cal work of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture involves some gray­ing of the line between fic­tion and real­i­ty. And many of them, includ­ing Wiesel’s Night and Levi’s Sur­vival in Auschwitz, have been iden­ti­fied, at dif­fer­ent points in their pub­lish­ing his­to­ries, as both mem­oirs and novels.

Martel’s book opens with an account of a writer who has cre­at­ed a dif­fer­ent kind of book about the Holo­caust: a work of fic­tion paired with an essay, to be pub­lished back-to-back with­in one bind­ing in flip-book style. In a scene that is at once hilar­i­ous and excru­ci­at­ing, var­i­ous big­wigs at the writer’s pub­lish­ing house take him out to an ele­gant lunch over which they sav­age both his man­u­script and the flip-book con­cept. (It won’t work, one of them tells him, because in a book with two front cov­ers there would be no place to put the bar code.) He leaves demor­al­ized, aban­dons writ­ing for some time, and moves to an unnamed city abroad. There he meets a taxi­der­mist who requests his help with a play he is writ­ing: a dia­logue between two char­ac­ters, Beat­rice and Vir­gil, who, we soon dis­cov­er, are taxi­der­mied ani­mals — a don­key and a howler mon­key. As the nov­el unfolds, it becomes clear that what we are read­ing is an alle­go­ry — per­haps even an alle­go­ry with­in an alle­go­ry — that has cer­tain res­o­nances with the destruc­tion of the Jews.

Martel’s pro­tag­o­nist, ear­ly on, says that he wrote his pre­vi­ous nov­el because there was a hole in him that need­ed fill­ing.” If nov­els can fill holes in peo­ple, can they also help to fill holes in his­to­ry? I didn’t get a chance to ask Mar­tel this ques­tion, but I imag­ine that he would have said yes.

Ruth Franklin’s A Thou­sand Dark­ness­es: Lies and Truth in Holo­caust Fic­tion is now avail­able. Check back all week for her posts on the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ings Vis­it­ing Scribe.

Ruth Franklin is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at The New Repub­lic and a lit­er­ary crit­ic. Her writ­ings have also appeared in The New York­er, The New York Times Book Review, Gran­ta, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She lives in Brook­lyn, NY.