The subtitle of this post should be something like “In which I explain my ambivalence about a book I REALLY wanted to love. But meh.”
Published April 13, 2010 by Spiegel & Grau (a RandomHouse imprint)
Nine years after Life of Pi (which, by the way, completely rocked my world), Yann Martel brings us Beatrice and Virgil, one of the most anticipated novels of the year. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most disappointing. And believe me, this is not the review I hoped to be writing for this book. In fact, it’s not the review I thought I’d be writing as I read the first half of the book. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Beatrice and Virgil is about Henry, a writer whose previous novel—a highly-acclaimed story that used animals to ask BIG QUESTIONS about humanity—earned him fame, wealth, and the desire to create something even better. If you’ve read Life of Pi, you’re thinking that Henry’s situation sounds pretty familiar right now….and that’s because it is, as Henry is basically Martel. Wanting to push the envelope further and maintain his reputation for philosophical writing, Henry has written a flip book about the Holocaust, in which one side of the book is a nonfiction essay, and the other side (which you read after flipping the book upside down and opening from the other cover) is fiction.
Henry’s publishers hate the book, primarily because they have no idea how to package and market something that does not fit neatly into one category, but according to Henry, they are missing the point. The important distinction is not the one between fiction and nonfiction.
The useful division is between the fiction and nonfiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies.
Martel, by proxy of Henry, is talking about fiction’s capacity to be, to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s lexicon, “truthier” than reality, and he is arguing for the importance of examining the Holocaust—a part of history left almost completely to nonfiction—through the lens of fiction.
Why this suspicion of the imagination, why the resistance to artful metaphor? A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real. Was there not a danger to representing the Holocaust in a way behold to factuality?
When one of the publishers asks Henry “What’s your book about?” he struggles to explain. They don’t seem to understand why he thinks it is so important to write fiction about the Holocaust, but Henry nails it with this:
If history doesn’t become story, it dies to everyone except the historian.
Henry goes on to explain that he used animals in his first novel because “speaking before his tribe, naked, he was only human and therefore possibly—likely—surely, a liar. But dressed in furs and feathers, he became a shaman and spoke a greater truth.” Martel is obviously talking about Life of Pi here, and I loved this part of the book, which shed new light on a story I love deeply and have read many times. But he is also setting up what he believes Beatrice and Virgil is going to accomplish, and I’m sorry to say that he fails to deliver.
So, after hitting a wall on the flip book, Henry agitates for a while, until, sorting his mail one day, he comes across an envelope containing pieces of the script for a play, a Flaubert story called “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator,” and a note from another man named Henry, who says that he needs Henry-the-author’s help. Using the return address on the envelope, Henry sets off in search of his correspondent and meets Henry-the-taxidermist who has written a play about a monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice. Acknowledging the allusion to Dante, the taxidermist calls Beatrice and Virgil his “guides through hell,” and goes on to explain that he became a taxidermist in order to bear witness, “to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been done.”
The taxidermist’s play has many charming moments, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and Henry becomes more frustrated with every meeting. Then the taxidermist shares a section of play that reveals Virgil is anxious. Very anxious. When questioned, the taxidermist reveals that Virgil is anxious “because he’s a howler monkey in a world that doesn’t want howler monkeys,” thereby confirming Henry’s growing suspicions that the taxidermist is doing what he, Henry, has been trying to do all along. He is writing a play about the Holocaust.
Beatrice and Virgil—the book—is beautifully written. Beatrice and Virgil—the play—provides an interesting if less-than-subtle and verging-on-insulting allegory to the Holocaust and a strong argument for the importance and power of fiction in helping us understand and cope with the unexplainable. Beatrice and Virgil have a conversation about how they are going to talk about what is happening to them when it’s all over, and they agree that they will refer to it as The Horrors. As for why they’ll talk about it:
VIRGIL: To talk-about so that we might live-with—I presume that’s why we want to do this?
BEATRICE: Yes. To remember and yet to go on living.
As the discussion continues, the emotion, the pain and suffering, that Beatrice and Virgil share is just as palpable as if it were coming from human characters. In fact, it may be more so because our distance from them allows us to feel their experiences more deeply. Sure, the taxidermist is creepy and antisocial. And yes, his play has many problems. But he seems to be doing something that Henry/Martel hasn’t been able to figure out how to do.
Then, there is a twist that comes like a punch in the gut and recasts everything that precedes it. (Sort of like that twist at the end of Life of Pi, but with the opposite effect.)
And that is why I feel so ambivalent about this book. I loved—LOVED—the first fifty pages of Beatrice and Virgil and even tossed around the pantyworthy word to describe it. Henry/Martel’s meditation on how fiction works, why it is important, and the ways it allows us to approach and examine the parts of our lives and histories that are difficult to face in nonfiction is eloquent, and the writing is gorgeous. It just feels like the Martel that I loved for Life of Pi. But Henry’s relationship with the taxidermist is overwrought and over-written, and the taxidermist’s play has just as many weaknesses as it does strengths.
And that twist at the end changes EVERYTHING.
It shook me so deeply that I had to go back and re-read the last half of the book, and then I didn’t love Beatrice and Virgil so much. If Martel had foregone the whole Henry-as-thinly-veiled-character-for-himself thing and just published the first section of this book as an essay about fiction and a polemic for using fiction to represent and address traumatic events, I would have been all over it. The first part of this book is wonderful. The remainder of it is angsty (particularly in light of THE BIG TWIST), and self-important and seems intended to make readers feel like they must be missing something if they don’t love it.
I’m not falling for that trick this time. Martel has succeeded in giving us a book that begs to be discussed, and that is certainly an accomplishment, but the discussions are more likely to leave friends and book clubs banging their heads in frustration than they are to lead to any kind of agreement or furthering of the art of fiction. So, from this Book Lady, Martel gets points for the noble goal of Beatrice and Virgil and for explaining that goal so skillfully, but he fails to achieve what he says (through Henry) he is going to, and he makes some disturbing analogies, comparing Jews to helpless animals, along the way. Because I am truly ambivalent about this one, I’m rating it right in the middle of the scale at 2.5 out of 5.