Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel
by Yann Martel
Coming in to this slight novel--barely more than a novella--all I knew was that it was Yann Martel's "Holocaust allegory," and that it had animal characters. Those animals are the eponymous Beatrice (a donkey) and Virgil (a howler monkey) but they're actually characters in a play within the novel. Let me back up...
The central character of Beatrice and Virgil is a novelist named Henry. Henry has written a very successful book that featured animals as characters. Henry's career, in short, is remarkably similar to that of Yann Martel. The beginning of the novel describes his travails while attempting to publish a follow up to his very successful book. Henry, who is not Jewish, wants to write about the Holocaust. He has noticed that almost all Holocaust fiction is in the style of historical realism. Henry believes there are other ways to have this dialogue, to tell this story. "Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists. To take just three well-known instances of artful witness: Orwell with Animal Farm, Camus with The Plague, Picasso with Guernica. In each case, the artist had taken a vast, sprawling tragedy, had found its heart and had represented it in a non-literal and compact way. The unwieldy encumbrance of history was packed into a suitcase. Art as suitcase, light, portable and essential--was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe's Jews?"
It is this that Henry attempts, but fails, to write. Despite his exalted stature, he is told repeatedly that his book is unpublishable. At this point, sick of publishing and completely blocked, Henry decides to pursue other interests. He and his wife move to an unnamed major city in another county. He takes music lessons, acts in plays, and even waits on customers in a chocolateria. He's happy. And it's a pleasure to read about Henry. Sure, he's rich, talented, and free, but at heart he's an everyman and so darn likable.
Eventually, a series of events leads Henry to an acquaintance with a taxidermist, also coincidentally (?) named Henry. In most ways Henry the taxidermist is completely unlike Henry the novelist. He's older, dour, and very, very serious. But he, too, is a frustrated writer. He has been struggling for years on a play about Beatrice and Virgil. The characters are real in his mind, as they are literally two stuffed animals in his shop. Gradually Henry the novelist begins collaborating on the play, and sections of the the play's text make up large portions of the novel. And the text is... well, I swear it sounds like Beckett wrote it. Beatrice and Virgil may as well have been renamed Vladimir and Estragon. Truly, if you have any appreciation of that sort of thing, it's an absolute joy to read.
And that's the thing: This light, short novel is a compelling and deceptively simple read. Other than novelist Henry's unpublished work, there's no further talk of the Holocaust until more than halfway through the novel. There's something going on a bit under the surface, but you can't really put your finger on it. And then novelist Henry says to his wife, "It's all quite fanciful, yet there are elements that remind me, well, that remind me of the Holocaust." She accuses him of seeing the Holocaust everywhere, and that's that. Mr. Martel's fanciful story of the novelist and the taxidermist and the donkey and the monkey continues. And slowly, gently, the real story being told becomes more and move self-evident. By the time I reached the end, I was well and truly chilled, with goosebumps breaking out all over.
Where the fictional Henry failed, Yann Martel has succeeded. It's a stealth allegory, and as I stated earlier, it's deceptively simple. Deceptive, because there's actually so much going on in this little novel. There are cultural, literary, historic, and religious references. I was actually busy googling things as I read and there was much food for thought. It seems almost ridiculous to say this about another Yann Martel novel, but you want to read this with a friend or a book group. By the time you're done, there is so much you'll want to talk through and discuss. Highly, highly, highly recommended!