Of those who actually read, I may well be one of the few humans left on the planet who has not yet read Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi. Everyone I know who has read it raves about it, so when I was offered the chance to read Martel’s most recent offering Beatrice and Virgil, which sounded like it had a very similar presentation stylistically, I took it.
I knew something was off when, shortly after I started reading it, my husband asked me how the book was and the first – and only – word out of my mouth was “weird.” At the time I was about 60 pages into the book and, quite honestly, very seriously thinking about giving up on it. So far all I’d learned, in painstaking detail, was that a renowned author named Henry had given up writing after a book he had been working on for 5 years was soundly rejected by his agent and publisher. Having packed up his wife and moved to a major, yet unnamed city, Henry was living a jolly old life working in a chocolatería, responding to fan mail, and acting with an amateur theater company. Um, ok.
Things start to pick up, a little, when Henry gets a letter from a local fan with a short story by Flaubert, a few pages from an uncredited play involving two characters (Beatrice & Virgil), and a cryptic request for help enclosed. His curiosity piqued, Henry writes a response and hand delivers it to the return address, which he discovers is a taxidermy shop. There he learns the shop’s proprietor is the author of the play, and that Beatrice and Virgil are two of his creations, literally. Beatrice is a donkey, Virgil a howler monkey, and both are specimens which have been fully preserved by the taxidermist.
It turns out the taxidermist, a very old man who is rather distant and not overly communicative, wants Henry’s help finishing the play, something he’s been working on virtually his entire life. At this point the book either actually gets interesting, or becomes irretrievably stupid depending on your point of view. Over a period of time the two work on the play, never in chronological order, and slowly the bigger picture of both the play and the book starts to take shape. Unfortunately, by this point we’re about 150 pages into a book that’s only 197 pages long. That’s way, way too long to make a reader wait, especially when what you’re ultimately trying to get to as an author is actually worthwhile.
The problem is Martel takes so long getting to the endgame (and Samuel Beckett’s influence is blatantly present, with “Endgame” as well as “Waiting for Godot” and “The Unnamable” all seeping in) that the conclusion feels both rushed and terribly at odds with the majority of the book. The story that unfolds over the first 174 pages is slow and winding, open to interpretation and indirect. The final 23 pages explode in a blunt, furious, quite graphic description of events that removes any doubt that may have remained about the book – and play presented within it – being an allegorical tale of the Holocaust.
There’s no question what Martel is trying to accomplish with Beatrice and Virgil is laudable; an interpretation of the Holocaust told from an entirely artistic, fictional perspective. Unfortunately, in his desire to be unconventionally creative about such a serious topic the message gets a bit lost in the sheer outrageousness of the story, and many readers will end up feeling betrayed at how drastically the book changes tone in its final pages. I actually liked the ending, much more so than the 174 pages it took to set it up, and think Martel would have been better served either sticking with his initial delivery throughout or writing the entire thing in the more aggressive tone that brings the book to its conclusion.
So where does that leave me? Well, I do keep thinking about this book, especially the questions posed as “Games for Gustav” in the epilogue. So on one hand, if for no other reason than it made me consider some rather disturbing philosophical questions, I enjoyed Beatrice and Virgil and don’t regret having read it. On the other hand, if I had known before reading it what I know now about Beatrice and Virgil I doubt I would have read it.
How about you? If you’ve read Beatrice and Virgil I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Similarly, if you’ve read Life of Pi please give me your best pitch for why I should still give it a shot despite my incredibly mixed experience with Beatrice and Virgil.
Beatrice and Virgil is available from Spiegel & Grau (ISBN: 978-0812981544).
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