Review Blog

May 24 2010

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

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Canongate Books, 2010. ISBN 9781847677655.
(Ages 16+) Recommended. Henry, the protagonist in this novel by Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi, has written a novel about the Holocaust. When it is rejected by his publisher, he stops writing, except to answer his readers' letters. He thus comes into contact with an elderly taxidermist who seeks Henry's advice about his own writing. The taxidermist's play concerns two animals, Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey, which in a Becket-like dialogue reveal their friendship and suffering. Juxtaposed to the play is the Flaubert short story 'The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator', in which Julian is described cruelly slaughtering thousands of animals until he kills his own parents, an event predicted by one of his animal victims. At first the taxidermist's play seems to be about the suffering inflicted on animals by humans, but eventually it becomes clear to Henry and the reader that the play is an allegory about the Holocaust and the two animals, which always speak intelligently and with great dignity, represent its many victims. It becomes clear too that the taxidermist bears a burden of guilt when he himself appears in the play as the boy who finally brutally kills both animals. Henry realizes that the taxidermist is seeking redemption but rejects him, and unlike Saint Julian who is elevated to heaven after atoning for his crimes against humans, the taxidermist is immolated in a holocaust of his own making.
Though simply written, the novel draws on many classical and literary texts to illuminate its meaning. Beatrice and Virgil were Dante's guides through Hell in L'Inferno and the taxidermist means his animals/characters to be understood as such for him. While they exist as stuffed animals in his shop in his play they do not act like animals, unlike the animals in The Life of Pi. They have the same kind of helpless companionship in the face of suffering that Vladimir and Estragon have inWaiting for Godot. Destruction is a theme of the novel but it is also in part about the act of creation, and the difficulty of using words to create meaning. Henry is forced to think about his own writing when his novel is rejected. He helps the taxidermist with suggestions, until he sees this as an act of complicity. The taxidermist describes both his own attempts to write and the art of taxidermy, which consists of taking the 'real' dead animal apart and building a 'new' one that is not subject to the constraints of time. Henry's experience with the taxidermist lead to his first writing for some years, the story of Beatrice and Virgil that is a celebration of life despite the tragedy.
While Beatrice and Virgil does not have the appeal of The Life of Pi senior students and teachers will find much to discuss, and to compare with other recent writing about the Holocaust.
Jenny Hamilton

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