'Beatrice and Virgil': Yann Martel's haunting fable of humans, animals and violence
A review of Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil," a novel of ideas by the author of "Life of Pi" that considers both the bond between humans and animals and man's capacity for committing terrible acts. Martel reads Sunday, April 18, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Monday, April 19, at the Seattle Public Library's main branch.
Special to The Seattle Times
Yann MartelThe author of "Beatrice and Virgil" will read from his book at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, April 18, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-634-3400; www.thirdplacebooks.com). He will also read at 7 p.m. Monday, April 19, in the Microsoft auditorium of the Seattle Public Library's main branch (206-386-4636; www.spl.org). Free — co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
"Beatrice and Virgil"
by Yann Martel
Spiegel & Grau, 197 pp., $24
A profound desire to cement a bond between animals and humans is the engine that drives Yann Martel's extraordinary new novel, "Beatrice and Virgil."
The same was true of his previous book, "Life of Pi," a best-seller that won the Man Booker prize in 2002. That story related the unlikely relationship between two creatures adrift on a tiny boat in the middle of the sea: a man and a tiger.
Or was it so? What really happened on that boat? "Pi"'s ambiguities, its contemplation of religious and moral questions, and its nature as a parable made reading the book a rich — if mystifying — experience.
The animals at the heart of this new tale are far tamer than Pi's tiger — Beatrice is a donkey and Virgil is a monkey, both of them can talk, and they are alive only in a play within the story we read. Nonetheless, they are fascinating — much more interesting than the humans, in fact, with one exception. This book is also notably more somber than "Pi," with virtually none of that novel's flashes of humor.
The narrator is a novelist, Henry, who has moved with his wife to an unnamed city, searching for anonymity after a best-seller brings him fame but his latest book, an attempt to tell the story of the Holocaust in a new way, is rejected. He receives a cryptic package, mailed from the same town, that contains, among other things, portions of a play about the two animals and a note that the sender needs Henry's help.
The writer can't resist, of course. Arriving at the address provided, Henry finds a shabby taxidermy shop run by a man also named Henry. The taxidermist is a distinctly odd duck, tall and severe, asocial and perhaps somewhat autistic.
He wants help, he says, to finish his play. The man is a brilliant taxidermist, who sees his calling not as ghoulish but as a deep way to memorialize and honor the animals he preserves. But his writing is unpolished and overly literal; it lacks verve.
Slowly, he reveals portions of the play to Henry. It consists almost entirely of dialogues between Beatrice and Virgil (pay close attention to the names). They speak in laconic, flinty, Beckett-like tones, bickering and arguing, offering each other the affection and trust of a long-married but compatible couple.
Nothing much happens, in terms of conventional action, until the very end, when terrible and sudden violence befalls animals and humans alike.
Instead we have extended discussions that seek to link species extinction to genocide — including a particular event the animals refer to only as The Horrors. Although the taxidermist never refers directly to the Holocaust, Beatrice and Virgil's musings mirror Henry's own inadequate attempts to write about the Holocaust — unsuccessful because, he finds, there are no words to adequately describe it.
"Beatrice and Virgil" has its flaws. There are occasional clichés: someone is safe and sound, Henry's mind races. And, except the taxidermist, the humans — notably the writer's wife — are stick figures (though this, of course, may be deliberate). These are minor flaws, however, in what is otherwise a novel that is ambiguous and inscrutable — but also provocative and brilliantly imagined.