Beatrice and Virgil
If I had to sum up Yann Martel’s new novel in one word, it would be “grim,” which is not to deter readers but to prepare them. In scope, if not in length, Beatrice and Virgil rivals Martel’s previous novel, Life of Pi, with its necessary and answerless questions and its cast of bizarre characters.
Henry is a Canadian writer whose first novel, featuring wild animals, was hugely successful. (Sound familiar?) In the five years after this success, Henry throws himself into a new and unusual work, which Martel describes in a superb essay-within-a-novel:
He’d in fact written two books: one was a novel, while the other was a piece of nonfiction, an essay. He had taken this double approach because he felt he needed every means at his disposal to tackle his chosen subject. But fiction and nonfiction are very rarely published in the same book. That was the hitch. Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries—separate aisles, separate floors—and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another. It’s not how writers write. A novel is not an entirely unreasonable creation, nor is an essay devoid of imagination. Nor is it how people live. People don’t so rigorously separate the imaginative from the rational in their thinking and their actions. There are truths and there are lies–these are the transcendent categories, in books as in life. The useful division is between the fiction and nonfiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies.
But Henry’s publishers prefer the traditional methods, and roundly reject his proposal: “This idea you have where we’re supposed to throw our whole imagination at the Holocaust–Holocaust westerns, Holocaust science fictions, Holocaust Jamaican bobsled team comedies–I mean, where is this going?” Demoralized, Henry slinks away to Europe with his wife, living abroad incognito, until he receives a letter from an admirer with a vague request for help. The letter writer turns out to be an unsmiling taxidermist-playwright, who introduces Henry to Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the howler monkey.
Henry is soon caught up in the story of Beatrice and Virgil, who talk around but not quite about a brutal experience they have shared. Their conversations are poignant, philosophical, and terrifying, and often interrupted by sobbing, howling, or hiding. Take this scene, for example:
VIRGIL: We could just talk.
BEATRICE: That won’t save us.
VIRGIL: But it’s better than silence.
BEATRICE: It is.
VIRGIL: I was thinking about faith.
BEATRICE: Were you?
VIRGIL: To my mind, faith is like being in the sun. When you are in the sun, can you avoid creating a shadow? Can you shake that area of darkness that clings to you, always shaped like you, as if constantly to remind you of yourself? You can’t. This shadow is doubt. And it goes wherever you go as long as you stay in the sun. And who wouldn’t want to be in the sun?
BEATRICE: But the sun has gone, Virgil, gone! (She bursts into tears and beings to sob loudly.)
VIRGIL: (stroking her shoulder to comfort her) Beatrice, Beatrice. (But Virgil in turn loses his composure and begins to weep uncontrollably. The two animals bawl for several minutes.)
Morbid curiosity compels Henry to assist the taxidermist with his play, mostly in the form of asking questions. Henry finds his creativity reignited even as his connection to Beatrice and Virgil becomes increasingly disturbing.
The play, like Henry’s unpublishable book (and thus Martel’s novel), asks, How do you speak of the unspeakable? How do you talk about what happened if you survived? Like the taxidermist stripping the fox or rabbit flesh from the bone and then reconstructing the body over a fiberglass mold, the play/novel strips away the familiarity of Holocaust narratives and reconstructs it in animal form, shocking the observer into dealing afresh with the horrifying realities to which he or she has been inured.
Martel is not a writer for the faint of heart. Reviewers who decry this novel as cruel to animals have missed the point; so have those who “enjoyed” the reading. It’s as ambitious, obscure, and dislocating as Life of Pi.