Romi Reads: Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil

20 Apr

Beatrice and Virgil | Yann Martel

Alfred A. Knopf Canada | $29.95

224 pages

Yann Martel is not a one-dimensional man, and neither are the stories he writes. From his 1996 novel Self about a young man who one day wakes up as a young woman, to the award winning Life of Pi from 2001 about an Indian boy lost at sea, sharing a small boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, Martel writes intricate, complex, multi-dimensional novels that captivate some, and confuse the hell out of others.

Martel’s latest, Beatrice and Virgil, is no exception. Under pressure to deliver beyond Life of Pi, his new tale of the relationship between a writer and a taxidermist meets expectations. True to form, the book received a range of criticism and praise from the severely offended to the unrequited love.

Henry, a well-known writer completes his most ambitious work yet: a two sided book on the holocaust—one side being fiction, and one an essay. Unfortunately publishers did not see the ingenuity of his art, and immediately reject the book in its original form. Embarrassed, the writer flees with his wife to “one of those cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves.”

The vagueness of his whereabouts is a beautiful way for Martel to put a large onus on the reader’s creativity. Essentially, those who read Beatrice and Virgil can create a world within the city of their choice for Henry and his accomplices.

Henry’s new refuge could not hide him from his loyal fans who he receives letters from regularly. One in particular stood out because of its peculiarity.  Included was a letter asking for help, a gory tale of slaughtered animals and scenes from a play that Henry suspected was written by the sender who happened to live in his city. The play intrigued Henry as it involved a conversation between a donkey, Beatrice, and a howler monkey, Virgil describing the experience of eating a pear.

Beatrice: But what does it actually taste like?

Virgil: A pear tastes like, it tastes like…(he struggles. He gives up with a shrug.) I don’t know. I can’t put it into words. A pear tastes like itself.

Beatrice: (Sadly) I wish you had a pear

Virgil: And if I had one, I would give it to you.


Curious about the letter’s sender, also named Henry, Henry went to seek him out. He was drawn into a taxidermy shop that matched the return address. And so begins the odd relationship between a struggling writer, and an old, emotionless taxidermist trying to write a play about a donkey and a monkey.

Martel carries on his obsession with animals from Life of Pi into Beatrice and Virgil again focusing on the nature of the beast but pushing it further by looking at creatures in life and in death.

The eeriness of taxidermy is what makes it hard to compare Beatrice and Virgil to its predecessor. Though equally as valuable, Martel’s newest exudes an air of darkness and discomfort whereas Pi is told almost as a fairy tale.

Henry comes to realise that the play he has been helping the man write is about the holocaust but this realisation is unsettling for him, so much so, that the novel ends with a dramatic moment of understanding.

The character of the taxidermist is as mysterious as the book’s wider meaning. He is not relatable, nor likeable, which makes one more desperate to uncover his true identity—a hopeless quest for the reader.

Like Henry the taxidermist, the book is full of holes and dark corners where information is left out and metaphorical connections are unclear. Like in Life of Pi, we are made to wonder what is real and what is not, which is what makes Martel’s writing so charming but so disagreeable to others.

A New York Times writer called the novel a “cringe-making fable” because of what the writer believes was a distasteful holocaust allegory and a Beckett rip-off. I, however, have not read Beckett, so to me; Beatrice and Virgil reeks of originality.

Besides, who’s to say what the true meaning of Beatrice and Virgil is?

Martel has an interest in the holocaust because of the way its stories affect people emotionally. He admits that his novel lacks concreteness, but does so to entice the reader to form their own opinion.

Is Beatrice and Virgil a PETA-like crusade for animal rights, or a question of whom can tell it and how the story of tragedy can be told? This, according to Martel, is up to the person holding the book.

In an interview with Alden Mudge, Martel says:

“Great art works because it tells an emotional truth. I suppose great histories could be both factually and emotionally true, but history is very cumbersome. What’s wonderful about art is that it gets at the emotional essence of things and it plays around with the facts. There’s a danger to that; you can manipulate things and you can peddle gross lies. It can be a dangerous tool, but also a very powerful one [which] if well used can deliver more than a history can. A work of art is the beginning of a discussion. It’s part of a dialogue. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to say, ‘Listen, this is what I’m saying; what do you think?’”

Those who prefer history to be left untouched by fictional hands will not like Beatrice and Virgil, but it’s worth the read regardless. Any reaction is better than no reaction.


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