Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book Review: Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Words are cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field.
I have been left completely gobsmacked by this new book by Yann Martel. I don't even know what I can possibly say in a review to do it justice, or even how to describe how I feel about this book.

'Beatrice and Virgil' is the second major novel from Yann Martel, following his hugely successful 'Life of Pi' (which I thought was sensational). It draws its title from characters in Dante's 'Divine Comedy': Beatrice is Dante's guide through Heaven and Virgil is his guide through Hell and Purgatory. In this book Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and monkey (respectively) in a play within the novel. Where to begin here? I just don't know. Once again Yann Martel has baffled the reader with fact and fiction. The main character in this novel, Henry, is a writer who has been unable to produce a second novel following his initial success (translated into several languages, won prizes, included several wild animals, sound familiar?) and has recently abandoned a work about the Holocaust. Years following this abandonment he receives a letter containing a short story, an excerpt from a play and a note requesting help. Upon seeking the author of this mysterious passage, Henry finds himself in a taxidermy shop run by an elderly man, also named Henry, and meets Beatrice and Virgil who have both been previously taxidermied (is that even a word?). From here Henry becomes embroiled in helping this man write his play.

This book is astoundingly beautifully written. All the excerpts of the play are divine, full of beautiful adjectives and metaphors, with existential musings that mirrors Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'. This book is also multi-layered. While on the surface it is the story of a writer struggling for inspiration and a somewhat creepy old taxidermist with a donkey and a monkey, it really is about the Holocaust. Here again, Martel has blurred the lines of reality and fiction, a story about struggling to write about the Holocaust is, in fact, a story about the Holocaust. 'Beatrice and Virgil' is a fable, an allegory for one of the most horrific scenes of human history, simplified and at the same time complicated by the use of metaphor. And the truth is, because of this, it is the most moving and tragic story of the Holocaust I have ever read.

Beatrice and Virgil's friendship is made all the more beautiful by their differing of species. They genuinely love each other, desperately almost, they are all the other has in life. It is amazing how affectively their vulnerability is highlighted in this book, simply by not being human, and it makes the tragic and shocking end to this book so utterly devastating. Please don't think I'm giving things away here, this is the sort of book you get so caught up in you forget everything you have previously read.
Not a moment to be lost. Be happy right now. Be happy. I'm so happy with you, so very happy. Let us dance with our porcelain shoes. Everything will be all right.
Though this book is barely 200 pages long it does become convoluted at times, and you wonder if things are necessary. Though while it lagged a bit in the middle and the allusions became increasingly less subtle as the book continued (to the point that they were often explained in case the reader missed them, cringe), the emotional affect this book had on me was immense. I will admit that it is not unusual for me to cry in a book. In fact it is more common for me to cry than not. I read very innocently. Like I said in my review for The Little Stranger I am completely gullibly sucked in to the plot of any well written book and therefore I think books like this have a maximum impact on me. I don't read cynically and I don't look for flaws (I lie, I picked Twilight to pieces) and therefore I am more likely to give a book such as this a far more glowing review than a somewhat more discerning reader. Despite this, I don't think this is a sit-on-the-fence book. You will either love it, or you will despise it. I am on Team Love. Thank you Yann Martel.

Please let me know if you have reviewed this, I would love to hear what you thought.

Other Opinions
Amy's Book Obsession


Aimee said...

OMG! I am totally going to read this for my horns and halos challenge.

ps. I just finished the blind assassin - review up later today - I FREAKING LOVED IT!

Elise said...

Ah Aimee, do it!! This only came out last week so NO ONE I know has read it and it is a book that NEEDS to be discussed!! Also so glad you loved The Blind Assassin, that book is just sensational!

Karen said...

This one sounds wonderful - I totally loved his first book and it feels like it has taken forever for this one to come out. I have a copy on hold at the library but I am thinking I might have to buy a copy of it...

Andrea said...

I was a big fan of Life of Pi so one day I'm going to have to read this too. Esp. after such a lovely review.

Jodie said...

I had no idea he was publishing a new book this year. Why do we not get the kindof advance warning we get when a new movie comes out? It sounds interesting - dead animals in love aww in a Tim Burton kind of way.

Nymeth said...

I have to confess that Life of Pi never appealed to me, but I'm curious about Martel, so maybe I'll give this a try.

Elise said...

Karen - this was a really good book. And I think you'll really enjoy it if you liked 'Life of Pi'. Very unexpected and interesting plot and well written!

Andrea - thank you! I would definitely recommend it and look forward to hearing what you thought.

Jodie - so right about the no warning business!! I had no clue until I got my Dymocks catalogue in the mail. But I think it was better because I knew absolutely nothing about it prior.

Nymeth - I don't know which of the two books you should try as your first Martel, they're both very weird. But this one is quite short so perhaps start here if you're dubious!!

Sue Jackson said...

Hi, Elise -

I found your blog through the link you left in your comment at BOTNS. I don't think it was rude or shameless at all!

I loved Life of Pi and was so disappointed to read two very negative reviews of Beatrice and Virgil yesterday. Then, I listened to Michale's comments on BOTNS today and came here and read your beautiful review...and now I'm happy again! I've put Beatrice and Virgil on my to-read list (which is hundreds of books long, but I think this one will take priority!)

Thanks for your review -


Amy said...

I loved this book as well. Excellent review! So glad to see someone else who enjoyed this book. I just wrote my review over on my blog if you're interested in reading it :)

Elise said...

Sue, thank you for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the review! I'd be really interested to hear what you thing of B&V if you read it :)

Amy, thank you for your comment as well! I just went and read your review and thought it was fabulous. Thanks!