Beatrice and Virgil – Yann Martel

After his 2002 Booker Prize win with the very successful Life of Pi, the author Yann Martel set out to write an “allegory of the Holocaust featuring a monkey and a donkey… a portable metaphor for the Holocaust”. Beatrice and Virgil (2010) opens with a successful author Henry, like Martel, who achieved immense success with a previous novel. Henry writes an experimental flip-book (comprised of a fictional work and an essay) about the Holocaust. But his publisher gently refuses to publish the book. Which is a pity because Henry

“had noticed over years of reading books and watching movies how little actual fiction there was about the Holocaust. The usual take on the event was nearly always historical, factual, documentary anecdotal, testimonial, literal… The terrifying event was overwhelmingly represented by a single school: historical realism.”

While I disagreed with the statement above regarding the dearth of fiction on the Holocaust, I was nonetheless looking forward to this new way of writing about the tragedy. Well, I need not have bothered. Beatrice and Virgil is a failed experiment.

The book is so wrong on numerous levels. First, I couldn’t relate to Henry, his struggles and his life. He is a successful writer suffering from a creative block. He whines a lot and his commentaries are not particularly insightful. His observations are often sophomoric. An example:

“They entered a neighborhood he didn’t know. He looked at the building, residential and commercial, noting their changing character; the history of the city and its inhabitants expressing itself architecturally.”

Duh? Even I know that and I’m trillions of light-years away from the creative galaxies that Booker Prize winning novelists inhabit. Secondly, the novel is actually a play within a story within a story. The second story involves a taxidermist who writes a play about the Virgil, the donkey and Beatrice, the monkey. I’m beginning to feel that Martel’s use of animals in his narratives is a bit like aliens in Will Smith’s movies. Anyway, the play which takes place on a graphic shirt, is modeled after Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It begins with a boring, completely unnecessary eight page description of a pear:

BEATRICE: Like an apple?

VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to…kissing.

BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.

There is also a lot of padding and overwriting in this book of only 200 pages. And It felt like the author was teaching a creative writing class; talking ad nauseaum about the merits of a story or play.  The condescension was palpable. But finally, on page 150, the donkey starts talking about the Holocaust. This is followed by a melodramatic ending that was spotted a mile away.  But it does not end there, for an additional 12-question segment called Games for Gustav is included.  The questions were interesting; Martel could have expanded one into a better novel. But I was confused by their addition.  Was I meant to discuss these questions with a friend or write my own flip-flop book?


A doctor is speaking to you:
“This pill will erase your memory.
You will forget all your suffering and all your loss.
But you will also forget your entire past.”
Do you swallow the pill?

Beatrice and Virgil is a mess. It’s disjointed and extremely boring. The metaphors and allegories are overdone and obvious. Ultimately, there is no story here to tell. And that’s a real pity given the subject matter and what Martel set out to do. I cannot recommend this book.

(I won the book in a giveaway during the April Read-A-Thon.  My thanks to the organizers.)

Have you read this book?  Did you like it?



  1. I read this book a few months ago and it’s still very much in my head but, as I said in my post, I can’t decide whether it was genius or trash. I certainly didn’t enjoy it but yet I do still keep revisiting it in my head. And I loved Life of Pi so much too 😦


  2. I guess after giving him a huge advance the publisher felt they couldn’t back out. I was really disappointed in the book as well, and had the same response as you did regarding it being all over the place. It’s a shame, because I’ve heard interviews and Martel really seems genuinely shocked by the response (though I do feel the NYTimes implying the book was anti-semetic took it a step too far).

    I’ve always believed – even a good author is entitled to a bad book. Hopefully the next will be better.


    • Well, I think the Life of Pi is good. I haven’t read it myself. It seems to be a very different book from Beatrice and Virgil. A pity really. I think Beatrice and Virgil is a hindrance for those of us who haven’t read any of his earlier works.


  3. It sounds as though you had a very similar reaction to me. I was annoyed by the over obvious metaphors too. I’m impressed by how much I still remember this book several months after reading it, but not sure if that is a good thing or not!


    • I’ve also been talking and thinking about it a lot. I really can’t believe how bad it was and that’s making it linger in my memory. Wish it would leave me already!


  4. Oh dear, I really loved Life of Pi … but somehow I haven’t felt the need to rush for this one. You’ve helped me decide! BTW Was that an ironic statement re dearth of Holocaust fiction? Is it meant to tell us something about the character? Surely it’s not Martell’s view.


  5. I’d love to know if there are successful (i.e. award winning) authors who’ve been knocked back by their publishers and told to go home and write another one!


    • Me too. Does seem as if they can very well publish whatever they like. Most unfortunate when others can’t get their books published at all.


  6. I love life of pi and his earlier short stories ,and have time for yann martell as a person with his send books to president thing ,but will wait to read this ,is sounds like a over thought out navel gazing execeise in how many writing techinques he could use ,all the best stu


  7. I don’t think I’ve read any positive reviews of this book, which is surprising considering the popularity of The Life of Pi, which I also liked. Everyone seems to agree with your statement, or just be completely flummoxed. Definitely won’t be rushing to read this one.


  8. Oh no. I’m not surprised you didn’t like this, but too bad you disliked it as much as you did! I also saw the twist coming a mile away. Having never taken a creative writing class those parts were semi interesting to me at least 😉


  9. Very enlightening review, I like your comments on Martel, who, since the success of the Life of Pi, can get any book published… It raises very interesting thoughts on books and publishing…
    I disagree on the lack of fiction on the Holocaust, I have read one only a couple of weeks ago: Sobibor by Jean Molla which not only talks about the Holocaust but about someone who was on the Nazi side.
    I might not pick up Beatrice and Virgil to read after all!


  10. I have heard predominantly negative things about this book since its release, but I think your review is the most dynamic of the bunch. Most people described not enjoying the book, but I felt your averse reaction was palpable here. I have a copy that I was given sitting in a box somewhere and with each passing day, I become increasingly reluctant to ever read it.


  11. I’m very sad that I keep seeing bad reviews of this book. I really like his writing, but now I’m beginning to think that I either shouldn’t read it or I should just check it out of the library. Sad…I love Yann Martel.


    • I think he over-reached on this one and it was just so unnecessary. And because of the popularity of Life of Pi, he obviously can get any book published! it’s a pity. I hope he overcomes this one. And since he is an author that you love, I would advise that you do check it out of the library. I try and read all the books, even the rare bad ones, written by authors that I love.


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