I finished Yann Martel’s latest novel, Beatrice and Virgil, about two months ago and set it aside unsure what to make of it. I figured I’d give this work by the Saskatchewan-based Martel some time to percolate a little in my mind before venturing comment. I truly enjoyed his Life of Pi, as clever a tale written in parable form as one might find. I later learned that Martel was the 1991 recipient of Canada’s Journey Prize (related O’Canada Blog entry on 3/21/10), which enhanced my appreciation for his writing abilities. As icing, because the author is Canadian, at some level I expected (hoped) that to weigh in the book’s favor. So, given all this, I looked forward to this latest offering by one of Canada’s contemporary literary lights.
Alas . . . . My predisposition and my prolonged rumination could not salvage my conclusion that this book comes up short on several measures. While it may be that the shadow of success cast by Life of Pi would make just about any author’s subsequent efforts fall short by comparison, I felt in many ways that a kind of writer’s block may have gotten the best of Martel with this work. There are too many elements that bear at least a passing resemblance to the earlier novel or the actual life of its author: like Martel, the protagonist in Beatrice and Virgil, is an author who found initial success with a work that was a parable and who then had a hiatus of some time before completing another novel; also like Martel, after encountering resistance to an innovative manner of telling a combined fictional story and a non-fiction narrative about the Holocaust, he retreats from writing; the main character then chances to meet a taxidermist-cum-writer in need of editorial guidance with a play whose main characters are animals — a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil); Beatrice and Virgil struggle to recount the horrors of a series of events perpetrated among animal-kind that, in the manner of a parable, is supposed to be akin to the Holocaust.
There are certainly a number of imaginative flourishes in the novel. The various ways in which the horrors are referred and recounted is interesting as is the idea that all the action in the play is supposed to take place (literally) on a great big shirt. The connection between the lengthy recounting of a story of cold-blooded animal hunting written by the 19th-Century French writer Gustave Flaubert and the mysterious life of the taxidermist-playwright is also intriguing. However, Martel’s story itself plods along and it is unclear whether Martel’s point about the Holocaust is that we should appreciate how vastly horrible it was — notwithstanding that, with the exception of true historical Luddities or denialists, the understanding is widely shared that, indeed, the Holocaust was immensely terrible. So, this is not much of a revelation by Martel. Maybe, like Martel’s fictional novelist in Beatrice and Virgil, Martel wanted to conjure up a more creative way to approach the Holocaust, or the subjugation of animals by people, than one can find in traditional literature on those subjects. Yet, at the end of all this, this novel feels like a work that is more of a palette cleanser than the satisfying main course we expected.