Tuesday, June 15, 2010

REVIEW: Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel. Published 2010 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

I'm going to start by saying that if you were a fan of Life of Pi and you expect Beatrice and Virgil to be anything like Life of Pi, you will be disappointed. So try to set your expectations of what a Yann Martel novel, or any novel, usually is, aside.

The first time I read the book through, I didn't really care for it. The story is about a novelist named Henry who encounters a taxidermist named Henry, an aspiring playwright. The play is a Holocaust allegory starring a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil. Puzzled and intrigued by the taxidermist and his play, Henry agrees to help him. Slowly certain things become clear to the writer, and the story ends abruptly, with a tragedy that seems to come from nowhere.

The story unfolds, as one reviewer put it, in a Russian-nesting-doll style- a story within a story within a story. Martel's style is unaffected to the point of blandness, to the point of banality. But even after finding the book unspectacular on the first read-through, I had the feeling that more was going on here, that there was something just under the surface and that I just needed to be a little more open-minded, relax my expectations a little, and work a little harder than I might be used to with most books.

The real story is about coming to terms with evil- how Henry the writer is faced with it in the form of the taxidermist, how the taxidermist comes to terms with his role in evil, and how the modern man (or woman) can begin to understand, in rational rather than emotional terms, the irrational evil of the Holocaust. I chose to describe Martel's style as "banal" because it is, and because I think it's tied to the idea of the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt's theory of the ordinaryness and everyday-ness of the unspeakable (which I'm oversimplifying). I think Martel is trying to tap into that vein of the everyday, of a story that is mostly ordinary and mostly matter-of-fact, until the very end, when the Henrys collide with the face of evil in very concrete ways.

I know that reactions to Beatrice and Virgil have been highly polarized and I'm not surprised. It's not really a reader-friendly book in many ways; it's what I think of as an "art novel"- a book that uses a bizarre and somewhat unbelieveable story to make an artistic or political point. My own opinion shifted significantly on the second reading, and I'll bet if I read it a third time I would come up with something else. Martel makes his point using a deliberately undramatic style, a choice not destined for universal appeal. It's certainly not light reading, and it lacks the lyricism of Life of Pi as well as the Booker Prize winner's narrative sweep. Beatrice and Virgil is about the everyday rather than the mythic, the quotidian rather than the divine.

So, who should read it? It belongs with serious readers up to the task of doing the work to appreciate a great work of literature, and anyone with a serious interest in Holocaust literature. But just as it's not a typical narrative novel, it's not a typical Holocaust novel, either. No historical realism, no litany of horrors, no eyewitness accounts here. This is a book about understanding the Holocaust, not reliving it. Despite the many negative reviews I believe that in time Beatrice and Virgil will be appreciated for the important work that it is.

I had the privilege of interviewing Martel under the aegis of the Association of Jewish Libraries; if you'd like to listen, click here. It's in four parts and clocks in at about 30 minutes. If you listen, I encourage you to leave comments on the interview on the AJL blog.

Heather at Age 30+ A Lifetime of Books has a great post on the book and roundup of other bloggers' reviews as well.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.