Beatrice and Virgil is the much-anticipated, long-awaited new novel from Yann Martel, author of the 2002 Booker Prize winner, Life of Pi. Before I set out to read it in early March, the early buzz I had heard from a couple of other readers and from some brief, early internet reviews, was that the ending was a complete surprise and that it was brilliant in its narrative structure leading to that revelatory conclusion. I now think that these readers need to get out more.
The deal is this: Henry is a famous, award-winning author of one bestselling novel. He struggles to get his second book published – a “flip-book”, half-novel, half-nonfiction essay on the Holocaust – and after a fruitless roundtable “firing squad” session with his editors, a historian, and a bookseller, Henry decides to abandon the premise and stop writing altogether, moving with his wife to a new, anonymous city.
*Sidebar: I have to mention the scene with the bookseller, as I think maybe this set the underlying tone of this novel for me. The bookseller is depicted as “plain-spoken and nasal-sounding” and is the catalyst for the negative tone of his meeting with the editors. He complains that the “flip book” idea is a “gimmick” that may end up as “one big flop book”.
“I hear you,” Henry replied… “Won’t it be a selling point?”
“Where do you see the book being displayed?” asked the bookseller, as he chewed on his food with an open mouth. “In the fiction section or the nonfiction?”
The conversation then devolves into bantering about “where the fucking barcode should go” and which side of the book gets displayed face out – all of which depict the bookseller as an unreasonable, mouth-breathing, eye-rolling misanthrope. (I, for one, am already regretting the 24 copies of this book I bought for the store.)
Resume unbiased review: Henry begins a new, relaxed life, working in a local coffee shop, taking acting classes, clarinet lessons, and answering the reams of fan mail he receives. One such letter contains a photocopy of a Gustave Flaubert short story called “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator“. In this fable of the Middle Ages, Julian is a ruthless, insatiable hunter who kills every type of animal he finds. When in the process of killing a family of deer, he is suddenly confronted by the stag, who speaks to him in a human voice and curses him to one day murder his own mother and father. Julian gives up hunting and instead becomes a liberator of men, leading a life as a mercenary, killing “enemies” rather than animals. In the end, he mistakenly murders his parents, of course, but is redeemed in the eyes of God, his sins washed clean. Henry is baffled by this story, which has had the scenes of animal killing highlighted by the mysterious sender. Also in the envelope is a scene from a play, in which a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice discuss the merits of pears. Presumably, since Henry’s first novel was a parable of faith involving animals, the mysterious fan is appealing to him for assistance in writing his play.
At this point, the self-referential tone by Martel was making me nauseated. I have often considered going back and re-reading Life of Pi – which was a word-of-mouth phenomenon prior to the Booker win, if you recall – just to see if it stands up. This is, of course, a personal consideration – have my own reading tastes evolved past Pi or is it worthy of continued acclaim almost a decade later? Actually, now I don’t think re-reading is necessary, since if a storyteller has no stories left to tell (for example, an author with one bestselling book in him), they regress into a more self-indulgent storyline. But I digress.
Henry decides to meet the mysterious playwright, who turns out to be a elderly, creepy, emotionless taxidermist, to help him with the writing of his play. After some awkward meetings and dramatic readings from the play by the taxidermist (also named Henry, by the way), it is revealed that the play is in fact set on the back of an enormous shirt and Beatrice and Virgil are survivors of some sort of horrible atrocity which they can not yet bring themselves to talk about. As a method of coping (and a terrible narrative device), the animals come up with a list of ways to discuss “the Horrors” once they are willing and able to do so – this list includes items such as “a hand gesture”, “a food dish”, “a float in a parade”, “68 Nowolipki Street”, “games for Gustav”, and various other nonsensical activities. Using his stunning powers of deductive reasoning, Henry eventually figures out that the play is actually a parable for the Holocaust, using a donkey and a monkey in the place of European Jews. Once he brings this revelation to the taxidermist, he is allowed to hear of Beatrice & Virgil’s discussion of what happened to them to lead them to where they are – horrible, violent torture has been inflicted upon Beatrice, but she has been set free and the two are on the lam, so to speak.
I have no problem revealing the ending of the play (and the novel) to you, as I don’t think anyone else should subject themselves to this. Several Nazi-ish youths, whom B & V witnessed committing other atrocities at some earlier point, happen upon the monkey and the donkey in the shade of their tree and proceed to bludgeon and shoot them to death. The end. When Henry asks the taxidermist what the “terrible deeds” were that the animals witnessed, he tells him of a scene of two mothers drowning their infants in an attempt to save them from further horrors at the hands of their pursuers. It seems pretty clear that this was something witnessed by the taxidermist himself, who in fact was more than likely one of the said pursuers. Henry draws the conclusion – based on the nature of the play as well as the unaffected salvation of Julian in the Flaubert story – that the taxidermist is seeking his own salvation and redemption from the atrocities he himself was a part of earlier in life. When Henry rejects the idea of helping the old man any further, the taxidermist stabs him and burns himself alive in his shop. And…scene.
“Shouldn’t the very newness of it, both in the content and in the form, in a serious book, attract attention?”
No. Not if there is nothing original about it. A listing of Holocaust tragedies from the perspective of humanized animals is not necessarily a “new” way of telling this story. It appears childish & amateur in actuality, as if Martel could think of no other way, no different storyline, than to throw in a monkey and a donkey, rather than a unique human perspective. Are we expected to be so unintelligent, uninformed, and disaffected as to need a story to be dumbed down for us with animal protagonists? We have read Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank. We’ve seen Schindler’s List, dude, we are not so stupid as you would assume. It’s as if Martel places his hand on your shoulder, looks you in the eye and says earnestly, “Dude. Seriously, do you have any idea what happened during the Holocaust? Do you know, man? I mean, my God, dude.”
“Is this a play for children? Have I read it wrong?“, asks Henry.
Have I? Am I a child, Yann? Or is it that you think your readers are so disconnected from the horrors of Nazi Germany in our charmed, 21st-century lives, that we need someone so magnanimous and enlightened like yourself to take us upon your knee and tell us a tale that we have never heard? I know nothing of the world that came before this one, except what I learn in shoddily constructed works of fiction! We are but babes in the woods, Yann – please tell us another story.
In your enlightened state, what did you do with your Booker Prize money, Yann?
It seems that the prevailing message is that it is acceptable for both the Nazi taxidermist and St. Julian to earn their redemption in the face of their horrifying behaviors. The taxidermist is released into the flames, as if he doesn’t need to answer for his sins on this earth. Will he earn the same salvation in death that is bestowed upon Julian by God? If so, Martel is provoking the reader just for the sake of provocation – there is no dialogue, no real discourse, just redemption for the sinner – how is this a story worth telling? It is so heavy-handed in its exposition of the Horrors that it makes me gag. Martel concludes B & V with a nauseating, gratuitous accounting of the “games for Gustav” alluded to earlier in the novel. These twelve games, whose value and entertainment are lost on me, are horrifying and ridiculous:
Game Number Seven
Your daughter is clearly dead.
If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better.
Do you step on your daughter’s head?
What is the point? Running the risk of sounding unsympathetic (which I believe is Martel’s ultimate attempt at provocation) I have learned nothing from this novel that I was not already aware of. We as a society have spent the past 60 years coming to terms with the dark capabilities of humanity and dealing with the aftermath of the Nazi pogroms. Why do I need to have it shoved in my face in fictional form at this point in our history? Even by using a childish narrative device such as a pair of animals, nothing within this is new – or even re-newed. I am left with no sense of renewed fervor over the atrocities of the Holocaust – all I have is a disgust with the author for assuming that I am unaware of such things or that I have forgotten them altogether. How dare you, really? Is the message supposed to be that Yann Martel has struggled mightily to release this important story to the world, as if he is some sort of prophet who predicts the history of the world 6 decades too late?
Perhaps I am that eye-rolling bookseller from Act One who cannot see the value in the novel before me – and I’m okay with that.