Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: A Review

Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s 2002 Man Booker prize winner, is one of my all time favorite novels. I remember that I asked my book club to read it because I was so enthralled with it. Half of them hated it and the other half, like me, loved it. There seems to be the same split for Martel’s newest novel or novella (it’s a mere 197 pages), Beatrice and Virgil. Let me digress a minute. One of the local high schools had Life of Pi on their summer reading list. A friend of mine, whose son attends this HS, asked me if I could help him understand the novel. The first thing I said to him is that in order to understand Pi you have to suspend your disbelief in what is happening in order for you to believe in what is happening. Huh?   Read more...
In order to understand Beatrice and Virgil, you have to believe that a donkey and a howler monkey can be an allegory for the Holocaust. In a way Beatrice and Virgil starts out partly autobiographical. Martel admits that. The story is of two Henry’s, Dante’s Inferno (Virgil guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory and Beatrice guides him through paradise) and the Holocaust. The first Henry is a writer who writes a wildly popular book, makes millions and has, as of yet, been unable to replicate his earlier success (i.e. Martel). Henry is obsessed with the Holocaust. His editors and publishers can’t understand this obsession. So, he decides to go do other things like learn to play the clarinet and join an acting group. Then the other Henry enters the picture. He has written a play and wants Henry to help him with it. To simplify, I’m going to call Henry the author “HA” and Henry the playwright “HP”. The play HP has written is about Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. As with Richard Parker in Life of Pi, Martel likes to use animals as characters because he can attribute traits to them because, well, why not? Do we really know if a donkey can or can not communicate with a howler monkey? It’s easier to suspend belief with animals than with human characters. But the real kicker is that Beatrice and Virgil are stuffed with Virgil riding on the back of Beatrice. HP, you see, is a taxidermist. As the two stories, that of HA and HP become entwined, you can’t help wondering why HA hangs out with HP, who is creepier than all get out. As the play unfolds, we find that Beatrice and Virgil are stand-ins for Holocaust victims and endure the same indignities and tortures. As with Life of Pi, all kinds of themes are thrown at you. Man’s inhumanity to man, a philosophical mediation on God, the extermination of animal life on earth and once someone has endured the indignities and “horrors” that those of the Holocaust endured, just how do you “endure”? Because I enjoyed Life of Pi so much, I kept reading, liking, yet not liking, and thinking, where is this going? And then at the end of the “novel”-it explodes. At the end of the “play”, Beatrice and Virgil think of playing games to hide their distress over the death of a young Holocaust victim, killed, more than likely, by HP. “Game Number 12: 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?”

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