BOOK REVIEW: Beatrice & Virgil, by Yann Martel

RELEASE DATE: April 6, 2010
PUBLISHER: Knopf Canada (an imprint of Random House)
FORMAT: Hardcover
SOURCE: Purchased

Fate can take many forms. For Henry, a writer living in a foreign city, it arrives in the form of an envelope from a reader. Instead of the usual fan mail, the envelope contains a story by Flaubert, a scene from a play featuring two characters named Beatrice and Virgil, and a note asking for Henry’s help. The note is signed “Henry,” and the return address is not far from where Henry lives. When Henry walks his dog to hand-deliver his response, he is surprised to discover a taxidermist’s shop. Here, stunning specimens are poised on the brink of action, silent and preternaturally still, yet bursting with the palpable life of a lost, vibrant world. And when the mysterious, elderly taxidermist introduces his visitor to Beatrice and Virgil—a donkey and a howler monkey—Henry’s life is changed forever. 

Yann Martel’s previous novel, Life of Pi, has become a modern classic. A fantastical tale about a boy and a tiger shipwrecked in the Pacific, it asked probing questions about belief and reality. Now Martel has written another story that uses animals to examine our humanity. In Beatrice and Virgil, he poses enduring questions about life and art, truth and deception, responsibility and complicity. Haunting and unforgettable, this is an extraordinary feat of storytelling.


The other day I went to an exhibit at the local science centre for The Chronicals of Narnia. Even though I was quite disappointed with the exhibit itself, one thing struck me: As I was leaving, I was reading about the time when C.S. Lewis actually wrote the novel and how the children in the book were to be evacuated for air raids. It said something along the lines of this: Imagine your city is being evacuated. It’s being evacuated because it’s being bombed. You have a small satchel of your things, a gas mask, and a postcard to send to your parents. Being evacuated means that you’re going to be moved to the country to stay with people you don’t even know – people who may not even like children. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to stay with your brothers and sisters. You’ll send the postcard to your parents to let them know you’re safe and let them know where you are.

I found this equally fascinating and disturbing. This is a life that I know nothing about. I read the novels and take in the words, but until reading that I don’t think I’ve ever just sat back and thought about how lucky I am – not only for the things that I have, but the security in which I am able to live. I’ve only been on this earth for 30 years and there may be some evil brewing that may come up in my remaining years, but as of right now I – and many, many people – have had a pretty lucky ride in this world.

Cracking open Yann Martel’s latest work, Beatrice & Virgil, I was completely ignorant to what the book was about. Having loved Life of Pi and Self, I assumed that I would love anything Martel wrote. My intentions for picking up this book to read were weak: The book was short and I was hoping to finish it by the end of the weekend. Both were true, but I wasn’t even prepared for what I was going to have to digest.

The book is about a writer, Henry, who (similar to Yann Martel) is a writer who wrote a book that contained animals. It was widely successful. His next book was to be about the Holocaust. A flip-book: One part fiction, one part non-fiction. If one were to flip through the pages of the book, partway through the text would be upside down. There would be no front or back cover – both covers would be perceived as the front. Unfortunately, Henry’s publishers decided that this was a bad idea – fiction and non-fiction don’t mix well together. Henry decides to just take a break – it’s not writer’s block, but rather a move to just not write at all. Live his life, learn new things, get a job somewhere else doing something he enjoys. Him and his wife move away to an unnamed city and move on.

One day, Henry receives a letter from another Henry – who, coincidentally, lives in the same city to which Henry and his wife moved. This Henry includes a photocopy of work by Gustave Flaubert. On this photocopy, the other Henry highlights all instances of the young Julian, the main character, killing animals and, ultimately, his parents. Also included in the package is a portion of a play that the other Henry has written. The play includes 2 characters, Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a howler monkey, who are discussing what a pear is. The other Henry includes a note saying that he needs the writer Henry’s help.

The writer Henry writes a small note for the other Henry – not knowing exactly what this other Henry was looking for, the writer Henry’s note is part praise, part constructive criticism on the play that was included – and decides to hand deliver it to the other Henry. When he comes up to the other Henry’s house, he is surprised to see that this other Henry is a taxidermist. Somewhat rude, to the point, and hard to read, the taxidermist and the writer form a relationship – an odd relationship that tends to include the taxidermist reading from his play, discussion, and then confusion on the writer’s part on what his role is, exactly, in this relationship.

Turns out that the taxidermist was a participant in the Holocaust. His play ends gruesomely, as does his life, and then the writer steals what he remembers from the play, revamps the “essay” portion afterwards, and submits it for publication.

I found this whole book somewhat hard to digest. Parts of the book are completely poignant – the discussions between Beatrice and Virgil about the pear and the descriptions of each animal are lovely. But the way the play is delivered throughout the novel are disjointed. It’s not known the order the play was written and at some point the writer Henry exclaims that the taxidermist rifles through an unordered stack of papers to find something. Until the very end (much like in Life of Pi), I had no idea what was going on. Knowing it was a work by Yann Martel, I prepared for the worst and, ultimately, got it.

I don’t consider myself to be an expert in history – far from it, actually – and found this book to be too disjointed and confusing. What was the point of the writer Henry’s animals in this book? To me, they served little purpose, other than filler. Erasmus accompanied the writer Henry to the taxidermist’s often and then, somehow, contracted rabies and killed the writer Henry’s cat, Mendelssohn. It was never explained how he got rabies, and there was little sorrow over the loss of both animals. Maybe it was to mark the beginning of the death in the book – Beatrice & Virgil’s death, the taxidermist’s death, the many lives taken in the Holocaust – but it’s never explained.

I also found there was a lot of literary references – all of which I’ve never read. I’ve heard of Dante’s Inferno and learned more of what it is from an interview I watched of Yann Martel, but having never read this piece of literature, I felt I was at a loss. There’s also very little description of the Gustave Flaubert piece that is included in the novel. It looks to be a story that inspired the taxidermist to take up that certain profession (first stuffing a mouse and then a pigeon). It may also allude to the fact that the taxidermist himself was a killer. It’s ironic that while he was a killer during the Holocaust, he now wants to bring life back to animals, making them appear as lifelike as possible.

Yann Martel said in an interview that there has been fiction and non-fiction on war and other “horrors” of the world, but with the Holocaust, there seems to only be a lot of non-fiction. From my eyes, this attempt was poorly executed. If having so much slaughter at the end of the book was Martel’s attempt at portraying the slaughter of the Holocaust, it was definitely done in a gruesome way and I think there could have been more thought, more tenderness about it.

The questions at the end of the book, the ‘Games for Gustav,’ while making the reader think, just seemed horrific and unthinkable. Yes, I get that the things that happened during the Holocaust were indeed unthinkable and unimaginable, but it seems like Martel put these in just for shock value. Having said that, I think the book could have been based more on these questions and put together in a more cohesive, rather than disjointed, manner.  I felt like characters and events were thrown in as the story went on, without much thought, but rather to make a longer story. All of a sudden there is a boy and his 2 friends. All of a sudden Beatrice and Virgil are on a country called “Shirt,” on a hill called “Collar.” All of a sudden there’s a man named Gustav, dead, by the tree where Beatrice and Virgil have their talks. All of a sudden. All of a sudden. The writer Henry would ask a question, which would be followed up with, “Oh, didn’t I tell you this part of the play …?” The plot just didn’t do it for me. Too much jumping around.

What was the point of the taxidermist stabbing the writer Henry? Then lighting his house and himself on fire? How is it that a man like the writer Henry, who must be well-read to be a writer, can’t even read a human being? His wife saw the evil in the taxidermist, the waiter saw the evil, but he couldn’t see anything bad about the guy? Has he been writing about animals for too long that he just can’t see the bad in human nature?

Maybe this book just went over my head. Maybe I have to re-read it to really appreciate what Martel was trying to do. Or, maybe, it’s just not the book for me.


My home is where my books are. - Ellen Thompson

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