Beatrice and Virgil
By Yann Martel
I remember Martel’s Life of Pi as warm and whimsical. Beatrice and Virgil, his next novel is different – serious and allegorical, sometimes heavy and ponderous, very rarely touching.
Henry is a writer, much like Martel himself. He has written a fairly successful book but his next concept novel has run into trouble. Writing about the holocaust (because so few writers have actually tackled this epochal event) in a new way – with a novel and an essay bound in the same book, his publishers reject it as too radical, strange and unwieldy. Disillusioned, Henry moves to a new city with his wife, gives up writing for the time being, acts in a local theatre, takes music lessons and works in a chocolate shop. His life moves along on an even keel, with a dog, a cat and an upcoming baby. Until he meets up with a taxidermist who wants to share a play he has written with him. The play is called Beatrice and Virgil and is the heart of the novel. It is a Waiting for Godot with the lead characters being a donkey and a monkey, talking about the extermination of animals. The taxidermist shares the play with him chapter by chapter, and it takes little time for the reader to realize the extermination is actually a metaphor, something Beatrice and Virgil call ‘The Horrors’ and that this is not meant to be a straight forward story at all.
Beatrice and Virgil is interesting in a strange, unmoving way. It is obviously a writer’s Orwell-ian attempt at a powerful allegory. But this is not Animal Farm or 1984. There is little subtlety and very little finesse. Yet the attempt at the allegory itself evokes curiosity and carries the reader forward, stumbling through the chapters of the play, staying a bit more through Henry’s life and thoughts. The end of the book however is inexplicable. I have no idea why it was needed except to make clear that the allegory indeed was about the holocaust, if anyone had not got it by then.
All in all, I have to be less than enthusiastic about Martel’s new work.