Beatrice and Virgil

Life of Pi
by Yann Martel will always be a memorable book for me, after we read it for the first Flips Flipping Pages book discussion in 2008. I was really sad when my brothe r borrowed my copy of the book and it ended up getting eaten by termites at his college dorm, but I got a surprise from bookish friend Triccie who gave me a deluxe illustrated edition for my birthday last year.

I enjoyed Life of Pi for its rhetoric on perception and Martel’s intelligent humor, which came unexpected for me — I wouldn’t have picked it up if not for my book club’s discussion. I also enjoyed Tomislav Torjanac’s vibrant illustrations.

I got to review Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil recently, and found that I really enjoy Martel’s writing. Read on for my review, first published on Manila Bulletin.

A donkey, a monkey, and two Henrys

Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one of the world’s most widely-read novels, a captivating story of survival starring a precocious boy named Pi Patel, who survives a shipwreck and spends 227 days adrift on a lifeboat with a tiger. Life of Pi won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2002, and has since been translated into 30 languages, selling seven million copies worldwide.

Nearly a decade after Life of Pi, Spanish-born Canadian novelist Yann Martel returns to the bestseller lists with Beatrice and Virgil, a one of a kind tale about identity and survival.

Tale within a Tale

Beatrice and Virgil is told from the point of view of Henry, a fairly successful writer attempting to get past the critical reception of his latest manuscript.

Deciding on a change of scenery, Henry packs up his bags and moves with his wife into a foreign city, and Henry takes a break from writing to explore various leisurely pursuits, including music and theatre, and goes on to work at a chocolatier as a small shareholder and part-time waiter.

One day, he receives a strange letter from within the city, with a copy of a grotesque medieval short story by Gustave Flaubert, entitled “The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator.” The letter also contains an excerpt from a play, featuring two characters named Beatrice and Virgil, and a short note asking for his help, curiously signed “Henry.”

Intrigued by the characters named after Dante’s muse and guide to the Underworld, Henry decides to track down his namesake, who turns out to be a cantankerous old taxidermist with a shop set up on the dodgy end of a commercial street.

Henry finds out that the taxidermist is writing a play featuring a donkey named Beatrice, and a monkey named Virgil (with stunningly realistic stuffed specimens showcased in the taxidermist’s workroom). It is a play that the taxidermist has been writing all his life, and he wants Henry to help him with the story.

As Henry’s visits to the taxidermist become more and more frequent, the story of Beatrice and Virgil unfolds, eventually leading to horrifying revelations about both the characters and the playwright, tying them to a horror that has been the subject of countless literary works: the Holocaust.

No man’s land

Martel juxtaposes two Henrys, one innocent bystander and one grotesque monster, and between them spins out a cautionary animal tale, once again choosing animals as the protagonists at the heart of this novel to stealthily weave a Holocaust story.

“People are cynical about people, but less so about wild animals…every species is and behaves as it needs to in order to survive,” Martel explains through the taxidermist.

Neither Jewish or German, Martel, as voiced through his protagonist Henry, proposes that there is little actual fiction about the Holocaust, as most of the works are “nearly always historical, factual, documentary, anecdotal, testimonial, and literal.”

Thus, with characteristic wit, Martel explores the no-man’s land between fiction and non-fiction in a new approach to the Holocaust, pushing the boundaries of truth and fantasy in a work that is “not an entirely unreasonable creation, nor devoid of imagination.”

While a fairly short and deceptively light read, Beatrice and Virgil is a thought-provoking exercise that may prove to be too dark for some readers, or too rambling for those who don’t look into Martel’s purpose for writing this Holocaust novel. Nevertheless, Martel’s carefully constructed layers, peppered with references to culture, history, and literature, are sure to evoke much rumination, whether the reader finds the novel a hit or a miss.

Beatrice and Virgil is available at National Book Store branches nationwide.

Beatrice and Virgil, hardcover with dustjacket, 4/5 stars

Book #72 of 2010


8 thoughts on “Beatrice and Virgil”

  1. I like the cover and I was planning on buying this; but after this review, I’m not too sure anymore. I don’t think I’m in the mood for heavy or serious novels.

    What I should get around to reading is Life of Pi. Seems this one’s worth the time.

    1. Hi Jo, it isn’t heavy at all; it just gets a little dark towards the end. Thought-provoking in the sense that it will get you to think about it after reading it, allegorical even, but not weighed down with a lot of narrative.

      But do read Life of Pi and see if you take to Martel’s writing. This one is a bit different, much shorter and less exotic, but his wit and fluidity are consistent.

  2. Hm, I’d like to read this, but will only think about getting it when my TBR has shrunk some. Since you like Martel, as I do, you might want to try The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. I found a copy in excellent condition at one of the National P50 bargain bins, and saw another, HB also, in Booksale MCS not too long ago.

    If you find a TPB copy in decent condition, I’ll swap you my HB if you want. :) I’m weird that way, preferring TP size to keep my bookshelves from crashing to the floor. When I am fortunate enough to have a house and an entire room just for books, I may upgrade my favourites to HB.

    1. Have you read The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios? How is it?
      I’ll hunt down a copy — will let you know when I find one :)

  3. I have read it – it’s on my shelf, in fact. It’s a series of short stories, so very different from The Life of Pi, but since I like Martel’s style, I enjoyed it!

    A friend of mine (one of the buyers of Fully Booked, actually) wants to visit the Booksale warehouse. I recall reading somewhere, and I think it was in your old blog, that you can’t just walk in without being endorsed or accompanied by a Booksale store manager. Please can you send me the details? Or the link to the appropriate post?

    Many thanks!!

    1. I enjoyed it a lot, really. I read a lot of Holocaust books when I joined the World War II Reading Challenge last year, and Beatrice and Virgil has a unique approach.

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