Some of you may recall my frantic childlike behavior when I loaned Life of Pi to a pretty eyed boy who promptly left it in Ohio. I demanded the book be returned. My copy. I didn’t want a new one, I wanted my copy. The one that still smells like train rides in England and Scottish rain. The boy shook his head but made arrangements to have my copy returned. (I should be thankful the book wasn’t left on the plane but rather with family, making it returnable.) I was happy again. Deemed crazy, but happy all the same. Lesson: don’t mess with a bookslut and her books.
Well, this pretty eyed boy recalled my insane obsession with my copy of Life of Pi and gifted me with Martel’s latest novel on my birthday. (This thoughtful gift earned some serious brownie points.) I didn’t throw myself into Beatrice and Virgil as soon as receiving it because I’d just finished The Elephant Keeper (a book about animals that I didn’t enjoy… I didn’t want to taint my Martel experience by having that in my head…)
I finished this extremely small novel the other day but have been relatively torn as to how to review it. I should start by mentioning that Life of Pi is one of my favorite novels of all times. The idea that people embrace fiction better than fact reminds me of “May’s Lion,” a wonderful short story about the death of a bobcat. I found Life of Pi to be magic, tragic, and all around quite lovely. A lot of the elements that resounded so strongly with me in that novel show up in Beatrice and Virgil. Published in 2010, Beatrice and Virgil has received some mixed reviews. In fact, should you google certain keywords, you may find a blog entry titled: “Why Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is the worst book of the decade.” Harsh, n’est-ce pas? (Actually, the blogger doesn’t much seem to understand the novel and thus has unfounded criticisms.) I can assure you that Martel’s work isn’t the worst of the decade, but I must also tell you that not all of you would enjoy it. It takes a special type of reader to appreciate and enjoy what Martel does with this novel. Stylistically, if you liked Dewitt’s The Last Samurai, you’ll probably be able to appreciate the artistic-ness of this novel. Martel crafts his words like a painting and the novel is visually effective. I think it’s important to view writing as art, both in writing it and in reading it.
“Henry had written a novel because there was a hole in him that needed filling, a question that needed answering, a patch of canvas that needed painting – that blend of anxiety, curiosity and joy that is at the origin of art – and he had filled the hole, answered the question, splashed colour on the canvas, all done for himself, because he had to. Then complete strangers told him that this book had filled a hole in them, had answered a question, had brought colour to their lives.” (And color this book will bring to your lives, fellow booksluts, trust me.)
The novel is about Henry, a novelist not so far removed from Martel himself. (The parallels between Martel and his protagonist were almost a little too gimmicky for me, but I quickly suspended my issues with that and fell into the book.) Author of a couple of books, he’d found some fame with his second novel (about animals) and was trying to get someone to pick up his third work, novel/essay flipbook about the Holocaust.
Martel Henry does a splendid job of explaining how the literary world views the Holocaust and how poetic license isn’t really allowed on that issue.
“Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists, and for the greater good. To take just three well-known instances of artful witness: Orwell with Animal Farm, Camus with The Plague, Picasso with Guernica. In each case the artist had taken a vast, sprawling tragedy, had found its heart, and had represented it in a nonliteral and compact way. The unwieldy encumbrance of history was reduced and packed into a suitcase. Art as a suitcase, light, portable, essential – was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of the European Jews?”
Martel is using Henry to explain/justify what he does with the Holocaust in this novel. It’s an interesting tactic that I didn’t like at first, but I ultimately came to understand the necessity for the work as a whole. Henry’s essay/novel flipbook is ripped apart at a luncheon with an editor. The description of the luncheon being a wedding party that’s actually a firing squad will ring true with anybody who has ever had an editor reject their work. But short story made long, Henry’s book is rejected, Henry is broken and ultimately quits writing. He travels with his wife to an unnamed city where he dabbles in other forms of art (music, acting, etc). Information about Henry’s life outside of the novel/essay he’d written and his work with the taxidermist is scant. We know he and his wife adopt a dog and a cat. (We know what ultimately happens to this pair.) We know he has a son. We know his wife has a work visa while he just pretty much farts around. But that part of his life isn’t essential to what Martel is doing; the taxidermist and Beatrice and Virgil are.
The taxidermist is also named Henry. A bit confusing but Martel is trying to connect the two Henry’s in the reader’s mind. He doesn’t want a disconnect because they are, in many ways, the same person. The taxidermist is writing a play about the Holocaust. He never says that’s what it is about, but it very much indeed is. One criticism I have is that Martel is a bit too heavy-handed in making sure his reader knows that the play is about the Holocaust. I do love the idea that the play takes place in a land called “Shirt” and a shirt that is striped. I love Beatrice and Virgil. I love the descriptions of them.
The taxidermist, Henry, has a slew of dead animals in his taxidermy shop that have been mounted (he explains that it’s not called stuffed anymore) and Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and a howler monkey.
A bit about the shop. Okapi Taxidermy is the only business on the street it is on, which sets the stage for privacy and secrecy. Henry, the writer, ‘s dog doesn’t like the place, which is a bit foreshadowing of things to come. It should be noted, it’s not the dead animals that bother the dog. But dead animals there are a plenty. “Crammed upon these shelves, each and every one, without any gaps, were animals of all sizes and species, furred and feathered, spotted and scaled, predator and prey.” The description of the shop continues, listing animals and colors that the reader can vividly see. Later, the writer Henry has the taxidermist write something about taxidermy. It starts: “The animal is lost from us, has been taken out of us.” and launches into details concerning the profession. “I wanted to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been down. That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness.”
Beautiful. “To bear witness.” Sound familiar? “artful witness.” “bear witness.”
The novel itself is a mixture of Henry’s life and interactions with the taxidermist, and the taxidermist’s play about Beatrice and Virgil. (Yes, Dante’s Inferno explains the name choice.) The play itself (in the segments provided) is very Waiting for Godot. Beatrice and Virgil do nothing but talk, usually about how they’re going to talk about what they’ve witnessed and been through, something they ultimately decide to call The Horrors. The reader is never given the whole play and what the reader is given is what Henry is given, which is disjointed and incomplete. It works. It works quite well.
The book will leave you hollow, and you’ll never look at a pear the same way. I don’t want to spoil this book because it is so artfully crafted that those who do pick it up should be rewarded by Martel’s unfolding of events, not mine.