Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel

Image of Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 12, 2010
Spiegel & Grau
Reviewed by: 

Yann Martel writes a great pear. A mouth watering pear. In his hands, the pear is transformed into something else, something beautiful, something that can barely be contained on the page. In his hands, the humble pear is transformed into art. And it is this transformative act that forms the crux of the Canadian’s long-awaited new novel, Beatrice and Virgil.

Beatrice and Virgil is a difficult novel, the literary equivalent of a behemoth rock band’s troublesome fourth album. It is a concept novel that teeters on the edge of pretension but never quite plunges in. It is a novel out of time, perhaps; one which, when measured against the Booker prize-winning The Life of Pi, will instantly be judged to be found wanting.

And yet, once the critical dust has settled and readers go back for that second bite of the pear, they’ll suddenly discover the true, subtle taste of the book. In time, the value of this humble pear will rise and rise.

The urge is to devour a Martel novel in one hungry then bloated sitting. It is almost too tempting to read it breathlessly, devouring the prose like a pear until the juice drips down your chin—after all, we’ve waiting nine years for the pleasure since the worldwide phenomenon that was The Life of Pi. And perhaps that is the problem with Beatrice and Virgil. It is not as immediately delicious as his previous work. In tone, it is introspective, closer in spirit to Martel’s first novel, the rather unstable Self, than almost myth-sized narrative of The Life of Pi.

Beatrice and Virgil is a novel about novels. The text is heavy with irony and metaphor. A postmodern, meta-fictive, intertextual, post-Life of Pi, post-Holocaust, post-post novel—all rather complicated. All rather ill-suited to a breathless read. Would it be better to read it tantrically, only consuming a few pages at a time in order to allow meaning to sink in so we can better see and understand the joins, the care and attention which has gone into the construction of this excellently crafted novel? Sure, but it is also hard to deny our impulse to munch ahead through the text. And this despite the fact that the plot, such as it is, is rather less tasty than his previous offering.

The novel begins at a pedestrian pace, introducing the reader to the protagonist, with Henry D’Hôte, who, we discover is an almost autobiographical figure; he’s a successful author whose previous novel was a worldwide success, and like Martel’s The Life of Pi, was remarkable for its magic realist treatment of animals. The first few pages read like an extended thanks to all those grateful readers who took the time to contact Martel in the wake of Pi, as well as introducing the idea that in the novel, the Martel persona is also in the process of completing his difficult follow-up work.

What follows is a gruesome representation of an editorial meeting in which a board (“firing squad”) of staff from the publishing house takes their turns destroying Henry/Martel’s work. We learn of Henry’s desire to write a text which had the transformative power of morphing the Holocaust into something other than a straight historical narrative; something more artistic, figurative, beautiful, and moving. However, when asked (repeatedly): “What’s your book about?” he fails to come up with an answer. It is, he senses, impossible to describe in a sound-byte, this creation of art and truth.

The meeting does not go well. Henry’s ideas for a “flip-book” containing both an essay on the Holocaust as well as a fictional treatment (because “each one of us is a mixture of fact and fiction, a weaving of tales set in our real bodies”) is trashed by the board from the publishing house. Later, he has a Lear-esque mad moment on the heath of a London park and decides to quit writing for good and make a new life for himself in a new (unnamed but grand) city. There, he plunges into a life of working in a cafe, learning to play the clarinet, and acting. His only writing comes in the form of answering his fan mail.

Which is where the novel proper begins. Henry receives a mysterious package containing a Flaubert short story and a strange scene from a play that features two Beckettian characters (Beatrice and Virgil) discussing a pear. The story appears to have nothing to do with the play, but, intrigued by the literary merit of the latter, and the delight the author (also, coincidentally, called Henry) has obviously taken in his description of the pear, swiftly sends off a response in which he says: “You write a good pear.” Over the next few weeks, Henry becomes more and more intrigued by both the play and the short story. As the postmark on the envelope shows it was sent from the same city, he eventually decides, on a whim, to go and meet the author in order to offer his assistance.

What has passed so far in the novel is prosaic, theoretical. But in one line, Martel changes course, shifts gear and starts to produce art. Henry “turned the corner—and stopped dead in his tracks. An okapi was looking up the street at him, its head tilted forward and turned his way, as if it were expecting him.” It is a line that you have to stop, go back, and read again. A line which, once read and digested, almost produces a cheer. Because Martel allows animals to transform this story into something more in a way that has rarely been more effective since Shakespeare wrote “Exit, pursued by a bear” in The Winter’s Tale.

Only, the okapi Henry has seen is not an actual live animal. On closer inspection, it is the centerpiece of a window display of Okapi Taxidermy, a “one-stop taxidermy store” in which the other Henry, the creator of the Beatrice and Virgil characters, evidently works and apparently lives. The taxidermy shop is a veritable Noah’s Ark of stuffed animals, all brilliantly rendered by Martel’s pen. They are in two distinct types, “the theatrical or the neutral,” either “the animal in action or the animal at rest.” And “each choice conveys a different feel, the first of liveliness captured, the second of waiting. . . . In the first, the liveliness of the animal denies death, claims that time has stopped. In the second, the fact of death is accepted and the animal is simply waiting for time to end.”

Here, the introduction of taxidermy both as metaphor and plot device is interesting, tying in neatly with Martel’s self- (or fictional self-) confessed desire to rescue life in the Holocaust from linear historical representation, countering this with remembrance through art. The taxidermist says: “What I am actually doing is extracting and refining memory from death.” Taxidermy claims to be a “true glimpse of nature as it was,” and yet Martel does ask us whether we trust this truth.

The taxidermist is described variously as “as serious as a microscope,” “an odd fish,” “a sphinx,” and “surly as a badger.” There is something not quite right about him, but for now Henry does not see the obvious. Instead, he becomes obsessed with the taxidermist’s play. He “meets” the two protagonists, Beatrice and Virgil, and discovers them to be a mounted donkey and a howler monkey, respectively. Beatrice and Virgil’s names are not randomly chosen, they are symbolic; in Dante’s The Divine Comedy they were the guides to heaven and hell; here, their play eventually leads Henry through a hell of his own.

Throughout the rest of the novel, the narrative swings between episodes from the play (named A 20th Century Shirt) and Henry’s slow but sure understanding of the true meaning of each episode. Beatrice and Virgil are being hunted down, have suffered terrible torture. It begins with notices on the walls, demonizing the howler monkey: “Fellow citizens! Large monkey of surly disposition. Eyes, voice, tail, and gait indicative of cunning temperament. Clings to life tenaciously. Characterized by antisocial behavior. Ugly.” Progresses through “the elaborate, institutional torturing of a donkey,” and the rape of the animal’s habitat, freedom, and landscape until Henry cannot help but draw parallels between “The Horrors” inflicted on the animal kingdom by humans and The Holocaust. “The indifference of the many, combined with the active hatred of the few, has sealed the fate of animals” explains the taxidermist.

This is allegory; this is Martel again using animals to explain something within ourselves. This is art. And yet, Beatrice and Virgil, figurative as they may be, stuffed and mounted as they may be, are as effective, as real, as Richard Parker in The Life of Pi. To a lesser extent, Henry’s pets Mendelssohn the cat and Erasmus the dog are also allegorical; when Erasmus contracts rabies, his shocking death is a direct parallel to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, with Henry looking on, complicit. In fact, Henry becomes more and more complicit in the terrible events. Even early on, his wife asks him if he’s become a “collaborator,” and because he fails to see the truth in the play until it is too late, he shows how people can get infected by the poison of the times. The revelation at the end of the novel, which I will not reveal here, is cruel and horrifying, but only Henry has not seen it coming.

Beatrice and Virgil asks more questions than it answers, but perhaps that is necessary. Perhaps Martel is arguing that the questions are as important as those stuffed and mounted answers. The novel doesn’t have a traditional plot, or structure, but perhaps this is because we need to find new ways of remembering what happened. And its stars are two animals. But as Martel argues: “We are cynical about our own species, but less so about animals, especially wild ones. We might not shelter them from habitat destruction, but we do tend to shelter them from excessive irony.” It is a difficult, uneasy, but ultimately rewarding read; a brave concept novel. One that deserves careful tasting. It’s something you’ll chew over for weeks, months in advance. And in this, in the delivery of a novel that makes fresh those terrible events, Martel’s art does achieve something. It achieves some measure of truth.