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.


Charles said…
No event in human history has been studied more thoroughly and carefully than the Holocaust. Thousands of thesis and dissertations papers have poured over mountains of data, from physical evidence and anecdotal testimony to captured German war documents. Virtually everyone with a PhD in History will stake their career on the fact that millions of Jews were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany. One can no more "revise" this fact than one can revise the existence of gravity. Wannsee Conference records prove that Nazis planned the extermination of Jews as, "The Final Solution." German concentration camp records prove that it was carried out.

Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize genocide we send a critical message to the world. As we continue to live in an age of genocide and ethnic cleansing, we must repel the broken ethics of our ancestors, or risk a dreadful repeat of past transgressions.

Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Deniers seek to distort the truth in a way that promotes antagonism against the object of their hatred, or to deny the culpability of their ancestors and heroes. If we ignore them, they will twist the minds of countless young people, creating a new generation of those who deny the facts of the worst episode of genocide in history. Freedom of speech and the press is a symbol of a healthy society. Yet, since no crime in history is as heinous as the Holocaust, its memory must be accurately preserved, to protect our children and grandchildren.

Museums and mandatory public education are tools to dispel bigotry, especially racial and ethnic hatred. Books, plays, films and presentations can reinforce the veracity of past and present genocides. They help to tell the true story of the perpetrators of genocide; and they reveal the abject terror, humiliation and degradation resulting from blind prejudice. It is therefore essential that we disclose the factual brutality and horror of genocide, combating the deniers’ virulent, inaccurate historical revision. We must protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

A world that continues to allow genocide requires ethical remediation. We must insist that religious, racial, ethnic, gender and orientation persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope. Only through such efforts can we reveal the true horror of genocide and promote the triumphant spirit of humankind.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"
Sonya said…
I LOVED life of Pi. SO i as reluctant to read this new one when the reviews didn't gush. Glad I didnt.
What are you reading these days ?

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