By the time I got to the final page of Yann Martel’s latest book, Beatrice and Virgil, published earlier this month, there were chills running down my spine. Famous for his award-winning novel Life of Pi, Martel has once again created a clever page-turner, addressing a multitude of issues.
There is almost a story within a story set-up. The protagonist is an acclaimed ex-writer, Henry, who moves with his wife to an unnamed foreign country after a half fiction/half non-fiction book on the Holocaust, to which he devoted five years of his life researching and writing, is completely rejected by editors and booksellers as “a complete, unpublishable failure.” In this new country, Henry and his now-pregnant wife settle into a new life where he is able to explore other creative outlets, such as clarinet-playing and acting.
However, his past as a writer does not quite leave him, as he continues to receive fan letters. It is through one of these letters that Henry meets Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a howler money, and eventually, the man who had turned these two inspirations into characters in a play.
Against the warnings of neighbors and his wife, Henry becomes more and more involved with this aspiring writer—who is first and foremost a creepy old taxidermist. Henry helps the taxidermist write parts of his play, which has seized Henry’s imagination, especially since it seems to be an example of exactly what his abandoned book was about: the Holocaust, but specifically, discussing and representing the Holocaust through new and imaginative fictional ways, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm with Communist Russia.
Beatrice and Virgil’s play is revealed in random snippets, read aloud by their creator. Not only are there references to the Holocaust, but the taxidermist claims that the play more accurately represents the destruction of animal species by humans, which the donkey and monkey refer to as “the Horrors.” Martel brings these issues to light, while also making the reader think about connections of art and memory, life, history, respect of the dead, and, especially as revealed in the shocking twist ending, the idea of deception, guilt, and the cruelty of human beings.
Although Martel depicts what could easily be elements of an ordinary life, all parts of the story seem intent upon further reflection, adding to the complexity of the themes. Of course, there is the taxidermist himself, who is keeping the memory of dead animals alive in a very physical way. A deeper example would be how the play Henry is helping to write is about deaths of millions; and yet, during this time, Henry’s wife gives birth to their son. This contrasts the overwhelming emphasis on remembering the dead with the continuance of life.
Martel’s novel is intelligent in that it is doing exactly what its protagonist struggles with: writing about the Holocaust in a respectable but imaginative way. Unlike the taxidermist’s play, Beatrice and Virgil ends with a somewhat more optimistic outlook on life, as Henry, having survived a certain, not-to-be-revealed, attack on his well-being, picks up the pen yet again to tell his tale. As already mentioned though, the journey to this optimism is disturbing and slightly unclear.
Beatrice and Virgil is a short and easy read (and with its fascinating story, the novel is a page-turner, so it is quite likely it will be read in one day). Straight-forward, very well written, with an original plot and likable characters, even people who do not read that often can pick it up and enjoy this novel.