Awe-inspiring,” said the Los Angeles Times, and “chilling,” added the Huffington Post. “A sophisticated fable” were the words from The Wall Street Journal, and “dark but divine,” wrote USA Today. All this praise was in response to Yann Martel’s novel Beatrice and Virgil when it appeared last year.
But who’s this, what’s this? It’s Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, who called Martel’s book “misconceived,” “offensive,” “disappointing,” and “often perverse.” All of which, in part, it is, but “chilling” and “dark” it certainly is. (“Awe-inspiring” and “divine”? Not so much.)
What is it about Beatrice and Virgil that produced such conflicting claims? Maybe it’s the fact that it followed Life of Pi, the book that won Martel England’s prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2002. And maybe it’s the unconventional, often puzzling — too puzzling — story line:
A successful writer named Henry has had his latest book, on the subject of the Holocaust, rejected by his publisher, so he travels with his wife from Canada to an unnamed city, where he performs in amateur theatricals and works in a chocolate shop; a taxidermist, also named Henry, has written a play, which he asks the other Henry to read; the play features two talking animals: a monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice; and the play, which bears an obvious resemblance to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, turns out to be an allegory of the Holocaust (which Beatrice and Virgil refer to as “The Horrors”).
Beckett isn’t the only master who’s inspired Martel here. There’s Dante. There’s Flaubert. And there’s Diderot. Add to that roster the book’s major concerns — the Holocaust and the limits of art; evil and deliverance from evil — and already you know this isn’t your standard best-seller. Does Martel succeed with the task he’s set himself?
You be the judge. Beatrice and Virgil is now in paperback from Spiegel & Grau. Yann Martel will be in Memphis next week to sign it and discuss it. -- Leonard Gill