Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Coming after the success and critical acclaim of Life of Pi, winner of the Man Booker prize in 2002, Yann Martel must have felt extreme pressure when he sat down in front of his laptop to begin his next novel. I must begin this review with a disclaimer that shows my bias; I have a cat named Richard Parker, after one of the characters in Life of Pi. It was with great eagerness and excitement that I picked up Martel’s newest work.
Beatrice and Virgil begins with Henry, a writer who, like Martel, has written a successful novel and has just finished a follow-up. Henry’s new book is about the Holocaust and is a novel and an essay together in one volume; it is deemed unmarketable. Disappointed and depressed, Henry and his wife move to a new city where he tries to move past his failure. From descriptions of Henry’s previous novel, It is quite obvious that the character is based on Martel himself.
Within his fan mail, Henry receives an envelope containing a short story by Flaubert and a request for help. He tracks down the sender, a taxidermist who is an odd, unemotional, older man who is attempting to write a play. The main characters of the play are Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. Spurred by the desire for an outlet for his urge to write and eager to begin a new project, Henry decides to help the man finish his play. Martel intersperses the main plot with snippits of the play.
Both the play within and the novel itself have depth and multiple facets. Similarly to Life of Pi,Beatrice and Virgil uses animals to tell a difficult story. The weakest part of Beatrice and Virgil is the climax which seems abrupt, unexpected and slightly confusing. Martel is known for taking risks and crossing new boundaries of storytelling. His first novel, Self, is a strong example of this as it follows a main character who changes gender. His newest release has the same imaginative force as his previous work, but does not have the same energy and is not quite as satisfying. The most endearing characters of this book are the ones that give it its title and it leaves the readers wanting to read more of the taxidermist’s play.
One of the most memorable yet lighthearted parts of the fictional play is an eight page description of a pear. This segment was entirely captivating and it is likely that more than one reader purchased a pear immediately after reading that section. As always, Martel’s writing style is brilliant; somewhat understated, filled with vivid yet never flowery description.
The very end of Beatrice and Virgil raises a series of questions that cut to the core of human nature. Martel succeeds in his goal of using fiction as a new way of looking at an historic event. It contains everything that one has come to expect from Martel; depth, delicacy, and inventive storytelling. Creating the follow-up to Life of Pi must have been a daunting task, but he has done an admirable job.