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REVIEW: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

By in Culture

Arts Writer

This year saw a splash in the Canadian literary scene, as Yann Martel published his first book since the Man-Booker prize-winning Life of Pi, which was released in 2002.

In doing so, he was given an advance of $1 million: the highest fee ever paid for a Canadian novel. (See, already you’re excited, and I haven’t even started talking about the book yet.)

    The first thing that may strike you about Beatrice and Virgil is its girth — there isn’t much of it. The story proper clocks in at just under 200 pages; that is followed by a sort of appendix entitled “Games for Gustav,” which won’t make any sense until you’ve read the rest of the book. It also has two covers, each one being the inverse of the other, so make sure you’re grabbing it by the correct front.

    The problem with this book coming on the heels of a classic like Life of Pi is that any reviewer will inevitably draw comparisons and contrasts between the two books. I am no exception. While their narrative structures are incredibly different, they have certain unifying thematic similarities. At their hearts, they’re both about storytelling.

    Beatrice and Virgil begins with a one-shot author, Henry, struggling to come up with a new book. He eventually gives up on his writing career and moves with his wife to a nameless city.

A mysterious piece of fan mail leads Henry to meet a taxidermist (also named Henry) who wants Henry’s help working on a play. This taxidermist is an unsettling sort of fellow who creates some eerily lifelike mounted animals. His prize pieces are a donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively. The play, A 20th Century Shirt, takes these two animals and brings them to life as its protagonists, depicting them as their idyllic life is torn asunder by an allegorical representation of the Holocaust they call The Horrors and this all takes place in a country that may or may not be a giant shirt. (Intrigued yet?)  The novel oscillates between the story of the writer and the taxidermist and excerpts of the play. The taxidermist requires Henry’s proficiency with words in order to complete his play but as time goes on, and the play extracts he reads grow ever darker, Henry comes closer to a disturbing truth.

    The novel’s 200-pages begins to take on surprising density once one actually gets into the thick of the story. It is not a book that can be skimmed, rather one must absorb each page as it comes.

My first exposure to this book was a reading Yann Martel did at the Saskatchwan Festival of Words this summer. He read one of the play excerpts in the novel, and it involved Beatrice and Virgil discussing pears. That was it; about four pages of discussion about pears, more specifically, the act of describing a pear to someone who has never seen one.

In doing so, Martel demonstrated simultaneously the profound power and weakness of language. He managed to craft an image of a pear so tantalising that people found themselves looking at common fruit in an entirely different way, but at the same time, he could never truly represent the real thing with words alone.

    That is the challenge of Beatrice and Virgil. It takes on the onerous task of representing the Holocaust in a new way. Even though it becomes apparent that A 20th Century Shirt is about the Holocaust early on, the truth of it is difficult to grasp. It strips the Holocaust of its usual trappings: Nazis, swastikas, gas chambers, Judaism, even the humanity of its victims; it becomes nothing but an emotional fact.

    It is similar to Life of Pi in that neither is strongly rooted in cause and effect from one point to another; neither are particularly about endings and beginnings. The most important things are the questions you ask on the way there. Since it is evident that A 20th Century Shirt is about the Holocaust, instead of wondering what it is one is left to wonder why it is, why it’s being portrayed in this way and what Beatrice and Virgil ultimately represent.

    My only real complaint about the book is how it rushes towards its climax at the end. But even so, it packs a punch, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. This is a book that must be digested. Nothing about it will particularly surprise you as you read it but as you mull over it in the days following, you will be left unsettled.

    I won’t be so bold as to say that Beatrice and Virgil breaks new ground in literature, but the way it uses language is quite skilful. The insouciant bleeds into the horrific. Fear bleeds into poetry. It demonstrates the power of words to change perceptions but also their failure to effect reality.

    I can’t guarantee what experience you will have reading this book, but it’s an experience you’re better off having.

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