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Yann Martel is a successful Canadian author whose second novel became bestseller. Several years later he is now returning with his newest book, an experiment in literature pertaining to the Holocaust.
Henry is a successful Canadian author whose second novel became bestseller. Several years later he is now returning with his newest book, an experiment in literature pertaining to the Holocaust.
Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel's newest novel contains the story of Henry, also an author. For Beatrice and Virgil is a study in parallels in as much as the 19,000 blank, concrete stelae that make up Berlin's Holocaust Memorial are. Martel has attempted to stimulate the antithesis of what he considers the Holocaust: "incredibly tragic [...] but also completely impersonal." Can Martel, who has proven himself as a talented author with 2002's bestseller Life of Pi, weave a fulfilling story about the Holocaust from a more human perspective?
Henry often laments, as does Martel in interviews on the nature of this book, that writers tend not to experiment creatively with the topic of the Holocaust. The reason may seem obvious, but Martel (and Henry) have a point - not many tragic historical events are left with such a dearth of creative material, for example, the poetry of World War I or the art produced in the aftermath of America's Civil War. The reason of it may be widely argued, but in my opinion, it is that the Holocaust is still a very raw wound for many people today. As such the concept of "Holocaust fiction" is almost primed for either prosaic pseudo-biography (e.g. a fictional equivalent of The Diary of Anne Frank) or backlash from its audience. There is also the fact that for the Holocaust to be used as a basis of a creative endevour may cause some people to recoil, especially as Martel is neither Jewish nor basing his work on well-documented historical fact. This is an especially pressing point when one considers that Beatrice & Virgil is not a "first hand" experience that Martel puts his characters through, but with more modern characters and set in contemporary Europe.
Henry is a novelist hiding out in an unnamed European city, with his wife and dogs, after the unexpected success of his second novel catapults him into the public eye. Though he is seemingly just yearning for a break from press interviews and being recognised (sometimes accosted) by fans on the street, he is actually recovering from a painful rejection, after his attempts to publish a book on the Holocaust, one half fiction and the other an essay in a so-called "flipbook" format, fails to find a publisher. His writing life is on hold for now, and his life is simple: he works at a cafe during the day and has dinner with his wife in the evenings. Even so removed from the world, he is still not out of reach of either fans nor fate, and he receives a manuscript from what he assumes is one of his most ardent readers. Within the manuscript Henry meets Beatrice and Virgil, characters in the aforementioned play, who happen to be a donkey and a howler monkey. The play consists of short, odd fragmentary dialogues the animals have with each other while making their way across the landscape of a striped pyjama top. Discerning certain allegories to the Holocaust, Henry, despite himself, is compelled to meet the author of the play and learn more about Beatrice and Virgil.
The dramatic structure of Beatrice & Virgil is a patchwork, incorporating Henry's meetings with the play's author, a taxidermist, and his various day-to-day goings-on such as conversations with his wife. These are interspersed with quasi-Beckettian interludes of Beatrice and Virgil, for example:
Beatrice: What a pleasant day.
Virgil: So warm.
Beatrice: And sunny.
Beatrice: What should we do?
Virgil: Is there anything we can do?
Beatrice: (looking up the road) We could move on.
Virgil: We've done that before and it didn't get us anywhere.
Beatrice: Maybe this time it will.
(They do not move.)
After the story ends proper, there is a section of unrelated "puzzles" called Games for Gustav.
Martel has certainly achieved in producing something startlingly non-traditional in this piece of work, so much so that I believe Beatric & Virgil's highly allegorical nature means it should be approached more as a fable than any cohesive piece of fiction. Unlike many post-modern pieces of work, Beatrice & Virgil definitely maintains a narrative structure - exposition, climax, denouement - but that is not the main focus of the novel. The themes override the characters and the situations, of a dark side of humanity not only lurking beneath the surface, but executed with military precision against itself.
However, it is where reality and fiction meet - like a work of fiction transitioning into an essay in Henry's flipbook idea - that Beatrice & Virgil becomes more contentious. It is obvious that Henry is Martel, and Henry's flipbook idea is lifted directly from Martel's personal experiences, which some may consider to be vain or outright ego masturbation. However, I do think the factual representation of Henry as a facsimile of Martel, contrasting with the pastiche of Holocaust fiction, is a fascinating indirect commentary on the nature of storytelling. Beatrice & Virgil is also scattered with references to other works of art - including Animal Farm, Waiting for Godot, the graphic novel "Maus" and Pablo Picasso's Guernica. The title is also based on two characters in Dante's Divine Comedy. While this adds layer upon layer on the factual fiction (fictional fact?) element of the novel, perhaps much of the audience will probably be alienated by it or consider it intellectual posturing.
However one interprets Martel's effort, either with praise or revulsion, I believe that Martel's influence is important in keeping the memory of the Holocaust burning in the public mind. To quote from the graphic novel "Maus", based on the experiences of a Holocaust survivor and quoted in Beatrice and Virgil, the author of Maus is in a conversation with his father, who says, in relation to literature on the Holocaust: "maybe it's better not to have any more stories". The author replies with a quote from Samuel Beckett: "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness", but then realizes, "on the other hand, he said it".
Ultimately, Beatrice & Virgil is an interesting experiment that many will simply not appreciate due to difficult, highly complex themes distilled into symbolism and post-modern pastiche. As an literary piece of fiction or conceptual crystallisation of some very important cultural, sociological and historical themes, it is worth a read. However, as a novel, I felt it was lacking in something fundamental. What Martel overlooked in his construction of Beatrice & Virgil is nothing short of bitter irony: simply, the book lacks humanity.
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd (7 July 2011)
This is Martel's long awaited third full novel and the promotion of it largely rests upon the success of his second novel, the Man Booker Prize winning 'Life of Pi'. In fact, the cover is deliberately reminiscent of the prize winning novel in terms of presentation and content. I find it interesting therefore that most reviewers who have read 'Life of Pi' (including myself) have been left frustrated or cold by Martel's new offering, while new readers are generally more impressed. Marketing the new book through reference to the old (the back cover consists exclusively of critical praise for 'Life of Pi') no doubt seemed logical to the publishers, but there is a fundamental flaw: this is a very different text and, in direct comparison, (which is encouraged by the presentation and marketing,) it seems rather flawed.
-- Monkey business --
After a painful rejection by his publishers, a previously successful writer moves country and suffers with writer's block. Among other pursuits, he becomes involved with a rather odd taxidermist who wants his help writing a play. The play is about Beatrice and Virgil - a donkey and a monkey - who suffer in (what is initially) a very Beckettian manner. Very little happens until there is a bout of frenetic activity near the end of the book. The blurb focuses on themes rather than action and the novel does likewise. There is little 'plot' and much discussion of art - and taxidermy!
-- Martel, meet Martel --
The main character, Henry, has achieved great success with his second book, which is never named but was 'about animals'. It has won prizes, been almost universally read and a film is being planned. After the promotional activity is wound down, Henry begins to write his next book. Martel - I mean, Henry - spends five years writing the follow up only to have it rejected by his publishers. He wants to write about the Holocaust in a new way that does not seek to trivialise but to 'normalise' it. He also wants to publish the book in an unusual way: as a flip book, comprising a fictional text and an essay.
Sounding familiar? A little research reveals that so far, this is very similar to what happened to Martel, actual author of 'Beatrice and Virgil'. This has led some readers and critics to shiver with irritation at the writer's self indulgence. Certainly, I found that it distracted me from the 'story' that was being told as the parallels were very obvious. This possible irritation reduces as the story continues and fiction diverges from fact, but it re-emerged at the end of the book, which I personally found slightly annoying. If Martel wants to write autobiographically, that's fine, but I think it makes the whole text feel too 'layered' and it distracted me from the 'story'.
-- Theme hammer --
I keep placing 'story' within inverted commas because this is a book which really isn't overly concerned with story. Instead, Martel wants to discuss art and representation. Henry is casually introduced and the relevant events are summarised in the first few pages; his wife is nothing more than a plot device and can be persuaded to move to an unnamed country more swiftly than most wives can be persuaded to put the kettle on. Even their pets (Erasmus and Mendelssohn) seem to be purchased purely for symbolic purposes and are irrelevant to the narrative for most of this rather short book. This, I felt, was the real source of my disquiet: despite his stated objective of encouraging discussion, Martel is incapable of letting his reader think. Everything is symbolic and meaningful, but that meaning is often hammered home. They move to a country that Martel refuses to name, but just in case the reader didn't realise that this was to suggest the universal nature of their subsequent experiences, Martel elaborates on his theme:
'They settled in one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin.'
This is a typical example of Martel's style. Some readers have suggested that this is weak or lazy or repetitive writing which is just designed to fill up the pages and please publishers waiting for the book (which barely stretches to 197 pages). I disagree and feel it is a stylistic choice, but it's one I dislike as I feel like I'm being hit over the head with a hammer labelled 'THEME' in bold capitals. I can understand that he doesn't want the reader to miss what he sees as important, and I wouldn't have made the connection to Dante's 'Divine Comedy' without Martel's character commenting on the names of the animals. However, simply highlighting connections to other texts doesn't help a reader who (like myself) is unfamiliar with the source material. Perhaps this is why Martel copies out large sections of Flaubert's short story, which he clearly considers to be thematically relevant.
-- Beckett with a talking donkey --
Early on Martel contextualises his book by reflecting on the success of novels which have been written about the holocaust. He clearly sees himself as an important part of a tradition.
More interestingly, for me, were the bits and pieces of the play sprinkled throughout the text. Written by the taxidermist, the play is a tribute to / blatant rip-off of Samuel Beckett:
Beatrice: What should we do?
Virgil: Is there anything we can do?
Beatrice (looking up the road): We could move on.
Virgil: We've done that before and it didn't get us anywhere.
Beatrice: Maybe this time it will.
(They do not move.)
I found these sections by far the most appealing of the play. Early on there is a wonderfully thorough description of a pear that manages to express the beauty of the object while sustaining a gently comic tone and evoking a sense of pathos. I feel that I would probably have preferred to read the whole play than Martel's final text. Apparently, the play does exist so I hope that Martel publishes that - perhaps alongside the essay he has also written.
-- Winnie the Pooh meets the Holocaust --
Henry's wife dismisses his literary efforts with the comment above and some critics have made similar points about Martel's work. Personally, I don't have a problem with Martel's use of animals. I do not feel that it trivialises the subject matter and in a book so obviously concerned with literature I was not concerned with the realism of their presentation. Equally, I was not 'moved to tears' by them as some readers have suggested. I think they were so obviously fictitious that I was unable to empathise with them.
In fact, there were no characters with whom a reader might really connect. Henry's motives are insufficiently strong to justify his actions, Sarah is barely present in the narrative, the animals are wrapped in layers of meaning and the taxidermist seems barely human. I was left feeling that for all the darkness of its subject matter and warmth of opinion the book has excited it was a very 'cold' read.
-- Another Man Booker winner? --
Ultimately, there is a very self-aware and reflective text. I hesitate to call it a 'story' as it doesn't really hold together as one. There is no clear centre and I didn't find the final section ('Games for Gustav') sufficient to redeem the book as a whole. In fact, I found it slightly facile. I felt that Martel was too obviously didactic in tone in this book and that the comparisons invited by the invocation of his previous novel are unhelpful. To me, 'Life of Pi' felt like an engaging story that happened to raise a couple of interesting questions about art and truth at the end. 'Beatrice and Virgil' felt more like a mish mash of symbols and themes. I missed the 'story'. I felt that the ending was unsatisfying and I wish the narrative had been divided into chapters as, while it is short enough to read in one sitting, I did not find it compelling and would have welcomed clear stopping points. However, I would read the play if it was produced in full.
Henry is a writer with a couple of successful novels behind him which brings him the genteel recognition of his readers and numerous letters from respectful 'fans'. His latest attempt to wow the literary world is a 'flip book' - twin books presented upside down from each other with no indication how you should read it. Henry thinks he's being clever - it's half a fictional account of the Holocaust and half a long academic essay on the same subject. You have wonder why he was surprised when the editor and other worthies gave his manuscript a big thumbs down. In shock Henry persuades his wife to move away with him to an unnamed big city where they get a cat and a dog and he finds a job as a waiter.
Henry's correspondence from his readers follows him to the new city where one day he receives a strange manuscript of a play in which two characters - Beatrice and Virgil - are discussing a pear and how much they'd like to have one. Henry realises the writer is in the same town and goes to meet him. He finds an elderly taxidermist who's looking for help on his manuscript - or is he? It's not really clear what the old man's after. He reveals that Beatrice is a donkey and Virgil is a howler monkey.
~Introducing Beatrice and Virgil~
Trotting back and forth to visit the strange old man, Henry tries to get his head round the tail of the two unlikely animal friends. It's clearly a fable of some kind but he's not sure what the moral is. The animals live on a shirt, a striped shirt, and are starving. Your plot antennae will be twitching, maybe it's something to do with the Holocaust, just like Henry's manuscript. Or is it?
Normally by the time I'm half way through a book I expect to have a pretty firm idea of what's going on. Half way through Beatrice and Virgil I still wasn't 'getting' it. Two thirds of the way and things were little better. By the end I just wondered why I'd bothered. I was hoping for a stunning denouement where everything would fall into place but trying to write this review I'm still really not sure what happened. And I'm sorry to say that I didn't really care.
~I desperately wanted to like this novel~
I loved Yann Martel's book Life of Pi. I had to be dragged onto a plane after a 36 hour delay because I couldn't bear to stop reading. It hooked me all the way through but Beatrice and Virgil just had me wondering whether there was something really important that I'd missed or whether there really wasn't any meat on the scrawny bones of these starving animals. Are the donkey and the howler monkey representing something? Clearly they are but who, what and how is another matter altogether. I wondered if the donkey somehow symbolised a connection with Christ riding into Jerusalem in the Palm Sunday story - perhaps, probably not. I didn't recall too many howler monkeys in any religious texts. Actually I don't recall howler monkeys in too many books of any kind.
~Possibly Terribly Clever - Certainly Almost Unreadable~
Beatrice and Virgil are names associated with Dante's Divine Comedy - but I only know that because Yann Martell told us fairly early on. Beatrice shows Dante through heaven and Virgil shows him through hell - neither seemed to be showing me much at all. Perhaps if I had read Dante, it might all fit into place, but I rather doubt it.
Beatrice and Virgil is a slim book at just 197 pages of text, many of which are quick reads because they are presented as dialogue for a play. Slim or not, it felt like hard work. The best part of me was the set of 'Games for Gustav' which Henry appends at the end of the book. These are little moral and ethical puzzles which did make me stop and think.
I desperately wanted to like this novel. I waited with anticipation for its release but with the book completed I'm left wondering if I would have finished it if I didn't owe the publishers a review at the end. I learned a bit about the work of a taxidermist, picked up some Dante trivia but was left feeling almost as hungry for plot as the poor animals had been for food and affection.
Many thanks to the lovely people from Canongate for sending me a copy but sadly this one didn't work for me. Sorry.
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Published by Canongate, paperback, July 2011
This review first appeared at curiousbookfans.co.uk