Finally, I’m getting around to reviewing this novel. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it – probably the longest gap since starting this site – so you’ll have to forgive me if some of the details are a little sketchy. I picked this up, more than anything else, to make sure I was up to date with new stuff. I quite liked Life of Pi, but thought the ending was a giant cop-out. So I was hoping Martel wasn’t going to pull another stupid thing like that again.
Henry is a famous author, who is riding on the success of a famous novel, and is fishing around, trying to find something new to talk about. He has grand plans for a flip book about the Holocaust, but this constantly frustrates him. At the same time, though, his wife gives birth to a child, and his family life begins to take precedence. Until, that is, he meets a strange taxidermist (also named Henry) who wants Henry to read his play, and nothing will be the same again.
Anyone who knows anything about Yann Martel – and even those of us who don’t – should soon realise that Henry is basically Martel in disguise. Indeed, Martel’s original plans for a book after Pi were indeed a flip book about the Holocaust. It is clear, though, that this didn’t work out, because we have this instead. There are some gentle jibes at marketers and publishers in scenes where Henry tries to pitch his new work to his agents, but even he realises the futility of his own undertaking.
Once again, Martel had used animals in a way that is at once both subversive and relatable. The titular Beatrice and Virgil are actually a donkey and a howler monkey, respectively, who are the two characters in the taxidermist’s play, which slowly becomes more significant as the novel goes on. The Taxidermist Henry is a man who has used these animals in his play because of his close relationship with the animal world. As a taxidermist, he has a fascination and obsession with preserving and idolising the animals he stuffs and preserves, and so animals are the only way he can get his message across in fiction. The juxtaposition of the two Henrys becomes more and more important as the novel goes on, with one man simply trying to write about the experiences of the animals, while the other wants to preserve the animals as they are, in memorium eternal.
Maybe I’m just thick, but it took me a while to connect the dots of what was actually going on in this novel – I was probably about halfway though when I realised that the gratuitous amounts of signposting about the Holocaust set up in the first act actually related to the play inside the novel, and the conversations the animals are having. The animals are, in fact, talking about the Holocaust, though they only ever refer to it as an event called ‘The Horrors’, the actuality being too horrible to think about. But just as Life of Pi reveled in its own ambiguity, Martel seems to be in no rush for us to make this connecting – he does not force the reader to instantly understand this metaphor, instead preferring to subtly hint several times. Granted, some may understand faster than I did, but there you go.
Ok, I have a confession to make. I can’t actually remember what happens at the end, though I remember it being good. And appropriate. And violent.
There’s a lot going on in Beatrice and Virgil, but alas, since I read it almost two months ago, I can remember very little of it. I remember wanting to talk about it, though, in a uni class, or with some intelligent people, because there is a lot going on. Martel piles on the metaphors and images, but not in a way that seems forced or pretentious. This truly is a novel that manages to talk about the Holocaust in a new way – one that does not feel forced to resort to an overwrought historical novel and no sentimental flashbacks. This is a Holocaust novel for the twenty-first century, if such a thing can exist.