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Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (review)

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.

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12 comments on “Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (review)

  1. Anonymous
    May 12, 2010

    Think you might have missed the point, several of them actually.

  2. Seth Marko
    May 13, 2010

    Oh, okay. Please enlighten me, Anonymous reader. Or is that all the insight you've got?

  3. Ruby
    May 18, 2010

    Completely agree. Thought about rereading Life of Pi myself after this but then thought better of it too. Well, at least B & V was short and thereby wasted little more than two days of reading time.

  4. Anonymous
    July 8, 2010

    Well, if you insist Mr. Marko.

    First of all, this entire review made clear, whether you were conscious of it or not, that you were reading the book to review/criticize, not to learn. I can't blame you for that. I just finished a literature course, so while I read this novel, I began think about what I would write about this book in the scenario that I must review the book. Until I shook myself out of that, and remembered that that reason should never be the reason for an author to write a book. Taking evidence from your last line, after finishing the book, it seems that you thought, “What was wrong with this book, what is it not showing me?” instead of thinking, “What am I possibly not seeing?” A typical approach to most readers that end up dissatisfied with a novel. Martel is a philosopher, not an author. You can read a book by a more traditional author, like Hemingway, for example, and by the end, the point will be clear and you’ll be content. You were on the right track when you thought that Martel was trying to provoke you. But not as an insult, but as a way to get you to think. He doesn’t want you to think a certain way, but just to think about something you haven’t thought about before. This was your mistake when reading this novel.
    Though you also asked the other anonymous person for some points. So I will take a shot. This book is not about the Holocaust, that was Henry’s. Henry’s predicament is an example of Martel’s plight, I’m positive, but the book not supposed to inform you to the facts or horrors of the Holocaust. It doesn’t assume that you’re stupid; it doesn’t play you for a fool and tell you how terrible everything was. It explains this in the opening pages, when Martel describes how many novels are there as testimonies about tragedies (Most of the books that you mentioned about the Holocaust) compared to how few have been able to take it to another level and make it into art. This was the novel’s intent, I believe, was for one to see how difficult it is for someone to express themselves in a way worth expressing, over horrors that they never witnessed nor suffered, but still consider important and forgotten. It was about art in reaction to horror. To remind a declining world that feelings about the crimes of old must never be forgotten, just because they have been solved. But as the book showed, Henry failed in his task, perhaps Martel was doomed to fail likewise. Even at the end of the book, it never reveals how successful Henry was with his new books. But it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with Martel’s aims or points, he just wants you to think.
    And there are also the points of the animals not making it a juvenile book, but rather a more disturbing one. When the taxidermist’s Holocaust undertones are taken into consideration; it resembles the dehumanization of a people, making the old man’s intentions with his play even more bizarre. The Games for Gustav were incredibly disturbing, but I encourage you not to put them off as you did in this review as pointless. As no action is pointless to the suffering man.
    I cannot say that I disagree with you everywhere, however. I’m not sure whether or not I liked the book. But it made me think, and most parts I didn’t like, I believe that I did not understand. You claimed that nothing in this book was new. Perhaps that is true, but that does not take away from the point, the story of the man trying to make sense out of the senseless.
    So I don’t know if this miniature essay will mean anything to you. But I was displeased with your review, and I must honestly say that I believe that you simply did not give the book enough credit, and did not think about its meaning and points alongside, but just assumed. I appreciated this novel, for getting me to think, which few others have lately, though by no means do I expect you to feel the same. Instead I just hope that you give the book another chance, and that you not be content as the bookseller, pushing away the struggling artist after a brief glance.

  5. Anonymous
    July 8, 2010

    Well, if you insist Mr. Marko.

    First of all, this entire review made clear, whether you were conscious of it or not, that you were reading the book to review/criticize, not to learn. I can't blame you for that. I just finished a literature course, so while I read this novel, I began think about what I would write about this book in the scenario that I must review the book. Until I shook myself out of that, and remembered that that reason should never be the reason for an author to write a book. Taking evidence from your last line, after finishing the book, it seems that you thought, “What was wrong with this book, what is it not showing me?” instead of thinking, “What am I possibly not seeing?” A typical approach to most readers that end up dissatisfied with a novel. Martel is a philosopher, not an author. You can read a book by a more traditional author, like Hemingway, for example, and by the end, the point will be clear and you’ll be content. You were on the right track when you thought that Martel was trying to provoke you. But not as an insult, but as a way to get you to think. He doesn’t want you to think a certain way, but just to think about something you haven’t thought about before. This was your mistake when reading this novel.
    Though you also asked the other anonymous person for some points. So I will take a shot. This book is not about the Holocaust, that was Henry’s. Henry’s predicament is an example of Martel’s plight, I’m positive, but the book not supposed to inform you to the facts or horrors of the Holocaust. It doesn’t assume that you’re stupid; it doesn’t play you for a fool and tell you how terrible everything was. It explains this in the opening pages, when Martel describes how many novels are there as testimonies about tragedies (Most of the books that you mentioned about the Holocaust) compared to how few have been able to take it to another level and make it into art. This was the novel’s intent, I believe, was for one to see how difficult it is for someone to express themselves in a way worth expressing, over horrors that they never witnessed nor suffered, but still consider important and forgotten. It was about art in reaction to horror. To remind a declining world that feelings about the crimes of old must never be forgotten, just because they have been solved. But as the book showed, Henry failed in his task, perhaps Martel was doomed to fail likewise. Even at the end of the book, it never reveals how successful Henry was with his new books. But it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with Martel’s aims or points, he just wants you to think.
    And there are also the points of the animals not making it a juvenile book, but rather a more disturbing one. When the taxidermist’s Holocaust undertones are taken into consideration; it resembles the dehumanization of a people, making the old man’s intentions with his play even more bizarre. The Games for Gustav were incredibly disturbing, but I encourage you not to put them off as you did in this review as pointless. As no action is pointless to the suffering man.
    I cannot say that I disagree with you everywhere, however. I’m not sure whether or not I liked the book. But it made me think, and most parts I didn’t like, I believe that I did not understand. You claimed that nothing in this book was new. Perhaps that is true, but that does not take away from the point, the story of the man trying to make sense out of the senseless.
    So I don’t know if this miniature essay will mean anything to you. But I was displeased with your review, and I must honestly say that I believe that you simply did not give the book enough credit, and did not think about its meaning and points alongside, but just assumed. I appreciated this novel, for getting me to think, which few others have lately, though by no means do I expect you to feel the same. Instead I just hope that you give the book another chance, and that you not be content as the bookseller, pushing away the struggling artist after a brief glance.

  6. Anonymous
    July 8, 2010

    Sorry about the double post, wasn't intentional, just google messing up.

  7. Anonymous
    September 23, 2010

    I think the 'Games of Gustav' are interseting and take an important part of helping us understand what Jews went through in the Holocaust. They reflect true situations, real dilemmas the Jews had to face.

  8. Anonymous
    October 6, 2011

    I think the games of Gustav were quite interesting as said above, even more maybe essential for the story in the sense that, apart from the holocaust in animals (call it simplified), where the ulterior motive would be making people think, creating a progress, I think using a game/question series would provide the same effect. Using a hypothetical situation to describe the Holocaust, would just as much shed a new light on memories, for it would make one pretend, one imagine, being a person caught in these events, but not a character, not someone's memory, it would be you. As much as animals take these events out of their literal context, these 'games' do too. (which may be, the reason for a thirteenth game?)

    I do not say that this is how the book is supposed to be interpreted, but this is how I interpreted it as I read it.

  9. Anonymous
    December 28, 2011

    Just finished reading this book, and agree that this book isn't very good.
    Very long winded, hitting the reader over the head with ideas that are already straightforward. I found the parts of the book that contained the Beatrice and Vergil play to be insipid at best, providing nothing meaningful in and of itself, nor as an allegory.
    Having the taxidermist also be called Henry seemed like a needlessly indulgent thing for Martel to do.

    Also, the end was abrupt. I didn't feel that there was any buildup in tension or anything thereof, just that Henry suddenly and randomly put two and two together, and the taxidermist just as suddenly decided to stab Henry now that he won't help him.

    The conclusion of the story did not help either, merely showing that Henry recovered, and decided to write the Games for Gustav. This seemed a little “Stockholm Syndrome” to me, as Henry was following the ideas and goals of the taxidermist himself.

  10. Anonymous
    May 7, 2012

    i agree whole heartedly with this reponse

  11. Anonymous
    November 27, 2012

    thanks for sharing.

  12. Anonymous
    January 4, 2013

    I agree, you have totally missed the point. The book is not really about the Holocaust as you seem to see it. It's about the debate that has existed ever since between people like Adorno ('Poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric') and fictional writers (Like Martel and Grossman) who believe in the importance of art to convey tragedy which has been disallowed by those who feel they have ownership over how this trauma is presented.

    The absolute low point and most misinformed section of this review was this: 'We have read Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank. We've seen Schindler's List, dude, we are not so stupid as you would assume'.

    Unfortunately Schindler's List is one of the most famously criticised texts for skewing representation of this tragedy – it is texts like that which have caused such a debate. Martel chooses fantasy so there is no way we can confuse this book with reality and warp the national perspective. This book is not about the holocaust, I think Martel is bright enough to realise you already know about it. It's about how best to preserve the memory.

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This entry was posted on April 18, 2010 by in review, Yann Martel.
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