BEATRICE & VIRGIL
By Yann Martel
Alfred A. Knopf
(April 2010, CAN $29.95, 197 pages)
Yann Martel’s new novel, Beatrice & Virgil, is noticeably less reliant on Martel’s masterful lore-ridden prose exemplified in his Man Booker Prize winning novel Life Of Pi. Beatrice is obsessed with two popularly tackled, yet uniquely portrayed literary themes: a bard with artistic challenges, and the Holocaust. Main character Henry, a world famous author living off the success of his last novel, is working on a half essay/half novel flip-book aimed at providing a fresh account of the Holocaust. Henry’s inspiration is historical realism’s domination of the theme in art, in response to which he thrives for an aspect of wonder: “A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real. Was there not a danger to representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality?” But after twenty pages of Beatrice, Henry’s unique post-modern stab at Holocaust representation is shot down by his publishers, who see hollowness in is his idea.
Upon the negative feedback, Henry takes a break from writing, and he and his newly pregnant wife Sarah move to an unnamed city. Henry attains a job in a cafe and volunteers in the local theatre company; Sarah works in an addictions clinic. Beatrice drops its budding rhetorical discourse of differently representing the Holocaust to more closely follow the theme of life as a writer: Henry begins regularly coaching a lowly, old taxidermist, also named Henry, on a play he has been working on all his life. Now, Beatrice mainly becomes an examination of the taxidermist’s play.
The play centres around two fervently symbolic, Dante-esque characters: a donkey named Beatrice, and a howler monkey, Virgil. The play becomes infused in the story, at times lengthily, with multiple page excerpts that follow the two animals as they lapse in and out of comi-tragic scenes. The first snippet of dramatic dialogue is six pages of Virgil describing to Beatrice what a pear looks like. It takes a while to decipher why Martel focuses on discussions of arbitrary things, at times difficult to link to any real symbolism. However, Beatrice eventually reconnects with Martel’s Holocaust motif, offering depressing, empathetic scenes where Virgil is sought out by an elusive secret police squad, and the taxidermist lividly pieces together parts of dead animals (“the mouth was a tongueless, toothless gaping hole revealing the yellow fibreglass jaw of the mannequin. [. . .] It looked grotesquely unnatural, a cervine version of Frankenstein”). Martel spells out numerous Holocaust metaphors, but it somehow takes the genius-like Henry until Beatrice’s final pages to understand the taxidermist’s theme, and realize there is a real-life Nazi nearby.
Martel, like Henry wants to do, cleverly creates an original viewpoint for Holocaust representation in art, which drives Beatrice’s self-reflexive capability home. By Martel leading us through the taxidermist’s play, reader and writer, fiction and reality become synonymous. Suddenly, Beatrice’s function is just what Henry’s art is, an imaginative story shedding new light on the Holocaust. Martel is begging us to look at his work as a reflection of real events and to pull fruitful reality out of fiction. This said, an entertainment reader seeking a Life of Pi adventure will be drawn away by Beatrice and Martel’s attempt to paint a new picture not so in your face as most would like it.
~ John Coleman