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.


Astrid (Mrs.B) said...

I wonder if I would like this as I'm probably one of the few who just didn't get into The Life of Pi. You wrote a great review and I am intrigued.

Yvonne said...

It's probably not my type of thing, but it's a great review and sounds interesting.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I'm one of the ones who really liked this books as well. Glad you thought it was worthwhile as well. Great review Marie.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I haven't read it, but just the fact that the 2 main characters have the same name really turns me off. I can see how it could be making some sort of point (we are all the same?) but I think the annoyance over having to figure out who is talking would ruin it for me!

Jessica said...

Interesting. I've seen several negative reviews on this book and was planning to skip it as a result. Now I'm thinking maybe I'll give it a shot.

Zibilee said...

You know, though most of the reviews I have read of this book have been less than stellar, I am still really interested to see what Martel has done in this book. Your review was wonderful, and really let me get a grip on what I will be getting when reading this. I will have to let you know what I think of it.

Marie Cloutier said...

Mrs B- I wouldn't let what you thought of Life of Pi influence you one way or the other. B&V is a totally different kind of book.

Yvonne- it's definitely not for everyone :-)

Diane- thanks :-)

Jill- There's no confusion when you're reading it. It's told from the writer's point of view and it's always very clear who's saying and doing what.

Jessica- I hope so! :-)

Zibilee- yes, please let me know! :-)

Kathleen said...

I really enjoyed this post because I think it is the first really even handed review I have read. I'm feeling more encouraged about reading this one in the future and I had previously written off the idea completely. Thank you for pointing out that a book like this might take patience and a reread to get at the meaning. I've still not read Life of Pi so maybe it is better for me to read this one first so I don't have those expectations from the first book.

caite said...

I just have to wonder at an author that writes a book that is not very reader-friendly book....awww, yes, to make a point.
Compared to the average person out there, I consider myself a fairly serious reader and yet this holds no interest for me. Oh well.

But you wrote a great review! ;-)

Bookin' It said...

First review of this book I've read that makes me want to read it. Thanks Marie!

Trisha said...

I have to say I like it that the book offers something different on re-readings. And I did love The Life of Pi.

Marie Cloutier said...

Kathleen- I hope you enjoy it if you decide to read it. It's not your average novel! :-)

Caite- no worries, it's not for everyone.

Bookin'it-good! :-)

Trisha-it's definitely thought-provoking, one way or the other :-)

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent review. I liked the book, and thought that it delved into areas not normally touched in a philosophical and creative manner.

Anonymous said...

This is the first review I've read that actually made me want to tackle this book. It's been sitting on my shelf for awhile, and I've been hesitant, worried that I just wouldn't get it. I hope I don't have to read it more than once, though, as I'm not much of a re-reader.


Pam said...

This book is next up in my list of books to read. I've been hestitant about reading it. Mostly because I loved Life of Pi and am sure it won't live up to that. And also because I've heard it described as an allegory. I'm not very good at figuring out allegories. I'm a more literal reader. All along I haven't been sure this is a book I would like or even finish. But, I'm willing to give it a try. But if I don't "get" it the first time, I'm afraid that's it for me. I do not like to reread books. There are just too many books out there I'm dying to read. I'm anxious to give it a try.

Marie Cloutier said...

Pam, it's nothing like Life of Pi but I will say the allegory is fairly transparent. I hope you enjoy it :-)

MedSchoolWife said...

This is a wonderful review! I had heard mixed reviews about it, and I really appreciate your open-minded, educated perspective.

Pam said...

Hi again, Marie. OK I finished it. It was quick and easy read. Easy in the sense that the language and writing was easily accessible. And I'm happy to report that the allegory was very transparent and even literal-minded me got it! While I didn't hate Beatrice and Virgil, I didn't really like all that much either. I agree the end came out of nowhere and had me scratching my head. I'm sure I would get more out of it if I gave it a second careful reading or discussed it with others in a book discussion group. But, I'm just not that serious a reader. I am, however, glad I read it. It was interesting, if nothing else.

Paperback Reader said...

Ooh, I love your point about the banality of evil! All the way through I had Theodore Adorno's dictum, ""There can be no poetry after Auschwitz" running through my head throughout but I hadn't drawn comparisons to Arendt's theory.

I do have some other theories, less prosaic than your own, and will share them next week.