Friday, April 16, 2010
Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel
Beatrice and Virgil is a brief little book full of surprises.
Like most of Yann Martel's readers, I came to Life of Pi first. Like everyone else, I fell in love with the story, the character and Martel's writing style. My enthusiasm was so obvious that I was soon gifted a collection of his short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. I was reading through "Manners of Dying" in that collection while I was on a plane last Spring. A business-looking-man came up to me and asked if it was as good as Life of Pi. I admired and enjoyed those short stories, but I was hesitant to give a simple "yes" to his question, because the short stories were so different in style, message and form than the novel.
To say that Beatrice and Virgil would not have been published if it hadn't been riding on Life of Pi is unfair. Beatrice and Virgil would not have been written if it hadn't been riding on Life of Pi. That was the first big surprise, especially given my experience with Martel's short stories--Beatrice and Virgil is in some significant ways at least a continuation of, if not a sequel to Life of Pi. The former's protagonist is clearly a Yann Martel-like character. He has been living off the success of his second novel--a violent work with a cast of animals. Readers of Life of Pi will remember that the book began with Martel telling us how unsuccessful his first novel was, and how that lack of profit gave impetus to the Pi. He then became a narrator for some chapters in the "Toronto and Pondicherry" section. Although the protagonist of Beatrice and Virgil is named Henry, we know that he writes under a nom de plume. Also, his third novel which would combine narrative and essay about the Holocaust has been rejected by his publishers--just like Martel.
And so, like Life of Pi, we begin to wonder what in the story is true and what isn't. For example, Henry personally responds to all his fanmail. If he didn't, he would think himself ungrateful. Now, does Yann Martel respond to all of his fanmail? Maybe he doesn't, and feels ungrateful about it. I don't know. My point is that because Martel obviously mixes real-life events with the sweet, sound lies of fiction, we can't trust Henry. Or at least, I couldn't--especially when it came to Henry's judgement calls. For example, he unexpectedly condemns and betrays the taxidermist/playwright because he realizes that he was a Nazi collaborator. Henry irrationally concludes that because the taxidermist had sent him a short story about someone who tortured animals and then found redemption, the taxidermist felt no remorse for his previous life as a nazi torturer--and this despite him naming the donkey and monkey Beatrice and Virgil because they were his "guides through hell." And there is no solid evidence that he was on that side of the Holocaust. He could have just as well been a victim. This honestly seems more likely, since the entirety of his play deals with how victims can talk about their experience.
If you have not been able to tell by my review, this book covers a lot of ground. It's a short novel--fewer than 200 pages, and without chapters, it reads more like a short story, yet it somehow manages to delve deeply (at least in an emotional sense) into a variety of topics. I find it ironic that a reoccurring question in the novel is "What is your book about?" since there is no simple answer for Beatrice and Virgil. It discusses the process of writing, fiction vs. non-fiction, trust, the Holocaust, epistemology (especially concerning people), fame, communication and the societal role of arts. (Among other topics.)
So we have a new chapter in this alternate-reality mythos Martel has made for himself. It is certainly an inventive novel, brimming with insight and wit. I don't think we have another living novelist as gifted and ambitious as old Yann, and so I eagerly await his next work, even though this last book asked far more questions than it answered.