Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil
By Yann Martel
Text, $39

Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

Books about authors who are struggling to write can be overly indulgent and introspective. Yann Martel’s convoluted allegory is neither of those things. What it is instead is rather weird.
The story begins with thinly disguised autobiography. Henry is a writer who’s had one hugely successful novel and is struggling to follow it up. He spends years trying to write something fresh and meaningful about the Holocaust, wrestling with the limitations and possibilities of fiction and non-fiction and coming up with the idea of combining both in a “flip book” – one-part essay, one-part novel. When his publishers nix the idea he is pitched into misery and decides to abandon writing.
There is no hiding the real-life parallels here and Martel, the Booker prize-winning author of Life of Pi doesn’t even try. This first part of Beatrice and Virgil feels more like an essay, justifying why it has taken him so long to write another novel and exploring why he feels compelled to write in the first place.
But then the character of Henry moves to a new city. There he takes music lessons, works in a chocolateria, walks his dog and becomes a father. One day amongst his fan mail there is a curious letter. Part of it is a photocopy of a short story by Gustave Flaubert about a man who hunts and massacres vast numbers of animals and part of it is the fragment of a Waiting for Godot style play in which two characters, Virgil and Beatrice stand beneath a tree and talk about a pear.
Henry seeks out the sender of this material who turns out to be a mysterious old man, a taxidermist who works in a store filled with stuffed animals, among them Virgil, a howler monkey, and Beatrice, a donkey. The taxidermist needs help with a play he is writing about these two animal characters and the scenes from this play, that are scattered throughout Henry’s story, turn out to be about the horrors of the Holocaust.
The further into this book you get the more dark and disturbing it becomes. It’s as though Martel is beguiling the reader with a fable and then suddenly surprises them with brutality and reality.
If it was a masterpiece he was trying to write then Martel hasn’t managed it. This is more of an oddity, touched with gothic, embedded with literary references and with a nod to Orwell’s Animal Farm. But if what Martel wanted was to trick his readers into taking a fresh look at the Holocaust, to remind them of its horror and how close it remains to us then he has succeeded I think. Beatrice and Virgil may not win him another Man Booker Prize – at least it shouldn’t – but it is a startlingly original work and fans of Life of Pi are certain to devour it.
Nicky Pellegrino, in addition to being a succcesful author of popular fiction, (her former title The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009 while her latest, Recipe for Life was published by Orion this month), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece was first published on 25 April.

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