Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil - Yann Martel

You know when you read a novel by Yann Martel you’re going to experience the story in a variety of ways.

There’s the story on the page, the story off the page, and your own intellectual and emotional responses to the experience.

As it was with Life of Pi, so it is with Beatrice and Virgil, a complex, fascinating and at times disturbing novel. Like its Booker-winning predecessor, Martel’s latest novel explores the nature and power of narrative.

Beatrice and Virgil is the story of a famous, award-winning writer, whose attempts to write an allegory about the Holocaust – accompanied by a non-fiction essay on the same topic – are rejected by his publisher. Angry and frustrated, he turns his back on writing, until a mysterious package leads him to a taxidermist.

The taxidermist is struggling to finish a play he’s been writing, featuring a donkey and a howler monkey called Beatrice and Virgil (named after characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy).

Henry is initially fascinated more by the gruff old man and his collection of meticulously mounted animals than he his with the play. But he’s slowly drawn into the strange piece of drama, especially when he suspects the play has the same intention as his failed novel.

Martel has said in recent interviews that he spent years writing Beatrice and Virgil, starting out wanting to write a play, a novel, and a flip book (with the “flip” side being a non-fiction essay). As it turns out, he’s managed to combine all three.

While not a flip book, there are elements of essay in the story, as Henry grapples with his own failings to combine fiction and non-fiction in a single tome, and muses on the dearth of fiction on the Holocaust (quietly establishing the basis for Martel’s own novel).

There are also numerous scenes from the taxidermist's play (provided out of chronological order) that become increasingly disturbing. The play itself initially feels like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, until the reality of Beatrice and Virgil’s situation is fully revealed.

Henry’s reaction to their suffering is compounded by the fact he sees the “real” Beatrice and Virgil among the mounted animals in the taxidermist’s workshop.

There are layers of ideas here. Martel explores the concept of “real” and “true”, the nature of life and death, and offers a parallel between the taxidermist and a novelist: both require respect for the subjects, both make choices that impact perception, and both must have an eye to detail to remain faithful to “truth”.

Martel challenges readers in ways we don’t always recognise until later. In Life of Pi, the scene with the flesh-eating island challenged our ability to suspend disbelief. Here he challenges our perception of the Holocaust – on an emotional level.

Through a series of surprising and shocking scenes (in the taxidermist’s play and Henry’s own life), it feels like Martel is asking: Do you understand? Do you really understand?

Like Life of Pi, Beatrice and Virgil is a story that stayed with me long after I finished it. Not just because of the unique combination of narrative techniques, or the intriguing plot, or even the suspense that slowly builds … but because of how I felt when I read those final chapters.

Life of Pi explained

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