Saturday, August 14, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

This is truly a most amazing book.  If you are a fan of Yann Martel's after reading "Life of Pi", his fantasy adventure novel that was a huge success a few years back, then this is a natural follow up.  If you have not read "Life of Pi" yet, I highly recommend that you do this first.  Then read "Beatrice and Virgil".  You will be exactly in the right frame of mind.

What's the book about?'s about a donkey called Beatrice and a howler monkey called Virgil.  They are characters in a play that a very creepy taxidermist has written.  This taxidermist approaches the main character in the book, Henry, a famous novelist, for advice and help.  This is the bare bones skeleton of the story.  But Martel hangs so many psychological layers upon this framework to shape his story that by the end of the book your head is spinning and your heart is breaking.

This book is being put forward as a satire of the holocaust, and some have said it's not worth the emotional toll...but I highly disagree.  This book represents writing at its most powerful.  A writer who can manage to speak volumes between the lines of a simple basic story structure and who can work your emotions like a concert violinist playing a stradivarius is one who is a master storyteller and magician.

I think the best I can do to convey the nature of this book is to quote the author himself.  In an interview, Yann Martel says this about Beatrice and Virgil:

"I often get asked the question why I use animals in my stories. Life of Pi was set in a zoo and featured a number of animals, and animals once again play a prominent role in my new novel, Beatrice and Virgil. Am I a great animal lover? Well, I suppose I am; nature is indeed beautiful. But the actual reason I like to use animals is because they help me tell my tale. People are cynical about people, but less so about wild animals. A rhinoceros dentist elicits less skepticism, in some ways, than a German dentist. I also use animals in my fiction because people rarely see animals as they truly are, biologically. Rather, they tend to project human traits onto them, seeing nobility in one species, cowardice in another, and so on. This is biological nonsense, of course; every species is and behaves as it needs to in order to survive. But this animal-as-canvas quality is useful for a storyteller. It means that an animal that people feel kindly towards becomes a character that readers feel kindly towards.

Why did I choose to write a novel about the Holocaust? There’s nothing personal to this interest; I’m neither Jewish, nor of German or eastern European extraction. I’m a complete outsider who’s been staring at this monstrous massacre of innocents since I first learned about it as a child living in France. It’s as an artist that I’ve kept coming back to the subject. What can I do as an artist about the Holocaust? I believe that if history does not express itself as art, it will not survive in common human memory. And so I took what I knew of the Holocaust, the cumulative knowledge of my reading and viewing and visiting (both to camps in Poland and Germany and to Yad Vashem in Israel and to various museums), and I set it next to that part of me that wants to understand through the imagination. Then I sat down and wrote Beatrice and Virgil."

Now, I strongly urge you to read this most amazing and powerful book.  At the end I weeped for humanity, for the holocaust that took place emphasizing man's inhumanity to man, and for the animal holocaust that is currently raging.  And I, like Henry, missed Beatrice and Virgil. 

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