Yann Martel came to the world’s attention for his quirky “Life of Pi,” a tale of a boy adrift in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger which became a bestseller, winning acclaim from the likes of President Barack Obama.
After almost a decade comes “Beatrice and Virgil,” whose protagonist, Henry, has won riches and renown for a spiritually inclined novel featuring wild animals. He’s a lot like his author, who also lives in Canada, has a young son named Theo and has struggled to complete a Holocaust-themed book.
A sprawling and convoluted work despite its slender spine, “Beatrice” begins with the rejection of Henry’s high-concept “flip book” by his publishers.
Combining a novel and, when turned upside down and over, an essay, Henry’s book explores his worry that while there are plenty of war thrillers, war comedies, and war science fictions, the Holocaust is invariably written about in one style: historical realism.
“Was there not a danger to representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality?” Henry asks. The way he sees it, unless the imagination is applied to historical events, they cannot truly be understood.
His publishers are more concerned about where to put the bar code on a book with two front covers.
Virgil the Monkey
Smarting from rejection, Henry leaves Canada for an unspecified foreign city. One day, he receives a fat envelope containing a macabre story by Flaubert, plus pages from a play starring an anthropomorphic donkey named Beatrice and her howler monkey companion, Virgil.
There is also an enigmatic plea for help. Though the sender’s signature is illegible -- Henry can just about decipher the first name, “Henry” -- the return address is local. Setting off across the city, he finds himself standing outside a taxidermy store.
So begins a series of meetings between Henry the writer and Henry the taxidermist, a ghoulish control freak in his 80s who’s looking for help finishing a play he has been wrestling with for most of his life.
Sections of this play are reproduced at length. Like Henry’s doomed flip book, it has little plot and less action. Suspended in Beckettian stasis, Beatrice and Virgil -- named after Dante’s guides through purgatory to paradise -- tramp a country named Shirt, fleeing savage persecution they’ve dubbed “the Horrors.”
Along the way, they obsess over a single, heartbreaking problem. As Virgil puts it, “Oh, Beatrice, how are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it’s over?”
Henry realizes the taxidermist’s play is an attempt to write about the Holocaust allegorically. Though his flip book made the case for just such an approach, dark inklings about the taxidermist’s shadowy past force a startling denouement in an otherwise torpid plot.
Martel has spoken about just how hard “Beatrice and Virgil” was to write. It has now been bought for large sums by publishers worldwide, and yet a feeling of failure persists.
Geeky references to other authors and long quotations clutter the text, while the novel’s tricky structure detracts from the simplicity of Beatrice and Virgil’s fragmented story.
And then there’s the ending, a series of harrowing moral dilemmas. It’s not giving too much away to say that they appear to offer an answer to Virgil’s plangent question. How should the Holocaust best be commemorated in literature? With silence, Martel seems to suggest.
“Beatrice and Virgil” is published by Spiegel & Grau in the U.S. and Canongate in the U.K. (213 pages, $24, 15.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)