When I heard that Life of Pi author Yann Martel had a new book coming out in April 2010, I was very excited. I read The Life of Pi when I was about 12 years old and remember discussing the questions it brought up with my mom. Yann Martel has had other projects since writing The Life of Pi (and winning numerous awards for it).
[Beatrice & Virgil] begins with a successful writer, Henry, attempting to publish his latest book, made up of a novel and an essay. Henry plans for it to be a “flip book” that the reader can start at either end, reading the novel or the essay first, because both pieces are equally concerned with representations of the Holocaust. His aim is to give the most horrifying of tragedies “a new choice of stories,” in order that it be remembered anew and in more than one way.
But no one is sympathetic to his provocative idea. To [his editors], Henry’s book is an unpublishable disaster. Faced with severe and categorical rejection, Henry gives up hope. He abandons writing, moves with his wife to a foreign city, joins a community theatre, becomes a waiter in a chocolatería. But then he receives a package containing a scene from a play, photocopies from a short story by Flaubert – about a man who hunts animals down relentlessly – and a short note: “I need your help.”
Intrigued, Henry tracks down his correspondent, and finds himself in a strange part of the city, walking past a stuffed okapi into a taxidermist’s workshop. The taxidermist – also named Henry – says he has been working on his play, “A 20th-Century Shirt”, for most of his life, but now he needs Henry’s help to describe his characters: the play’s protagonists are a stuffed donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively, and Henry’s successful book was in part about animals. He wants help to finish his play and, we may suspect, free himself from it. And though his new acquaintance is austere, abrupt and almost unearthly, Henry the writer is drawn more and more deeply into Henry the taxidermist’s uncompromising world.
from the publisher, Random House Canada
Beatrice & Virgil has a tough standard (the success of The Life of Pi) to live up to, and many reviewers have drawn parallels between Henry the writer and Yann Martel himself. However, I prefer to separate the author and the book a little when I read and take the novel all on it’s own.
My first impression of Beatrice & Virgil was average. The writing is okay but Henry’s observations bothered me. It felt like he (as a character) was always trying to describe every minute detail — from the colour of the carpet to the way a picture hung on the wall. I found it overwhelming and unnecessary. However, because the first few chapters are always difficult (capture the reader, keep the reader, engage the reader) I gave the book a chance and carried on reading. Once Henry met the taxidermist, the writing style changed and became a little more relaxed and fluid.
It took me a while to get into it, but once I did I wanted to know more. The story does stick with you in a similar way that Life of Pi did as Martel leaves you with unanswered questions. Martel’s allegory of the Holocaust through a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil is chilling. The taxidermist is a unique character that you can’t quite put your finger on. With themes of humanity, psychology, and ‘darkness’, Beatrice & Virgil (and particularly the taxidermist himself) is chilling, haunting, yet intriguing. Overall I enjoyed the book despite the slow start, but I think I liked Life of Pi more.
I mentioned that Martel leaves the reader with unanswered questions. Here are some questions I want answered:
- What happened in the taxidermist’s past (exactly)?
- What was Henry’s fictional Holocaust story?
- Why wasn’t Virgil locked up like Beatrice?
- Why were donkeys (like Beatrice) “outlawed” in Shirt?
Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes. This situation did not affect my review in any way, shape or form.