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?
GAME NUMBER TWELVE
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?