Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

It has been nine years since Yann Martel’s second novel The Life of Pi first published. Its winning the Booker Prize in 2002 has solidly placed him on the international literary stage. Beatrice and Virgil is the long awaited third novel by this Saskatoon based Canadian author.

Beatrice is a donkey.  Virgil, a howler monkey.  They are the two characters in a play written by a taxidermist.  Beatrice and Virgil are also specimens in his shop Okapi Taxidermy.  The two names come from Dante’s Divine Comedy, to which the book has made reference. The metaphor of taxidermy is a fresh frame Martel constructed to look at the Holocaust. The preservation of evidence of lives lived, the mounting of historical facts.

Beatrice and Virgil is also a love story.  The two animals cherish each other and have to face the cruelty of extinction together.  In the play, they have elaborate talks about fruits, a striped shirt, God and faith.  It’s all allegorical of course.  And there’s the rub.

While I fully appreciate Martel’s attempt at creating a new frame to present the atrocity of the Holocaust, I doubt using animals as symbols and parallels, depicting the cruel treatment of them would suffice to convey the magnitude and severity of this horrific crime against humanity.  Despite a sincere intent and the riveting storyline, I feel the book fails to deliver the dynamics and efficacy in its form as an allegory.

Nonetheless, the book conveys some very interesting points, through which Martel has demonstrated the imaginative power of literary creation.  First off, the author plays with the notion that the line separating fiction and non-fiction is indeed blurry.  To make a case of it, he writes himself into the story.  The main character is an author called Henry, whose wife Sarah later on gives birth to their son Theo, the name of Martel’s own son with his partner, the writer Alice Kuipers.

Back to the story, Henry’s second book has stirred international sensations, winning prizes, adopted by schools and book clubs, and adapted into a Hollywood movie.  Life of Pi is all that.  And just like in real life, it has been a few years after that before the fictional Henry completes his third novel, a book on the Holocaust.  But this time, he has trouble finding a publisher (now this may diverge from real life.)

This new book Henry wants to get published is a literary fusion. He wants it to be a ‘flip book’.  One side is fiction, the other side an essay, with the title on both.  And that is exactly what the cover of this book Beatrice and Virgil is like.  Henry observes that all Holocaust accounts have been ‘historical, factual, and literal’, it is worthwhile to create a fictional rendition of it, “a new choice of stories”, providing readers with an artistic expression representing these well documented, horrific happenings.  And this is exactly what Martel has done, constructing imaginary portals based on facts.

Once these layers have been peeled off, there is yet another with Henry meeting the taxidermist who is writing the play using Beatrice and Virgil as the two main characters. Coincidentally, he is also called Henry. So, the amateur writer Henry mysteriously involves the professional writer Henry to help him with the completion of his play on the Holocaust.  But of course, there remains yet another layer of secret.

The image of Escher’s Drawing Hands keeps emerging in my mind as I read the book, how a writer would write himself into the story and into the story.

While the style of storytelling is intriguing, when one considers the topic and the major crux of the book, that being the atrocity that is the Holocaust, it is apparent that the choice of the deadpan treatment of a donkey and a howler monkey in allegorical terms just would not suffice. While the play in the book is reminiscent of other two-character plays, namely, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For GodotBeatrice and Virgil seems to lack the wit of the former and the depth of the latter.

And as I think about the fact that it has taken the author nine years to come to this one, I wonder, just wonder… Oh, the creative process is indeed an incomprehensible and uncertain path, as cryptic as an Escher drawing.

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel, published by Knopf Canada, 2010, 224 pages.

~~ ½ Ripples


Epilogue:  Yann Martel Reading at the Calgary Public Library



After writing the above section on Beatrice & Virgil, Arti has the privilege of listening to Yann Martel read from his new book at the Calgary Public Library tonight (April 28, 2010).  It’s always interesting to hear a writer read from his own work.  It’s even more gratifying listening to the Q & A session afterwards.  Yes, he is still sending books to Stephen Harper because he firmly believes that literature is the tool to understand the human condition.

The writer also talked about the creative act, and the use of animals as symbolism. Animals are inherently poignant.  And, how did he know at that pivotal moment of his life, that he wanted to become a writer?  It’s from within, you’d know it because you’d simply want to write without any consideration of monetary gains or praises.  It’s a strong feeling inside moving you to just do it.

Do I need to make any changes to the review above after hearing the author read from the book?  No, I don’t think so.  But what has changed is my view of the writer.  I have come face to face with a very personable and casual human being, someone who is convinced that literature can teach us how to be human, that fiction is as important as facts, and that the creative act of writing is driven by an inherently insatiable desire to simply write, without the intention of being published or any notion of ‘success’ in mind.