book review: Beatrice and Virgil

Title: Beatrice and Virgil
Author: Yann Martel
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6926-2
Hardcover: 197 pages
Publisher: Spiel and Grau (April 13, 2010)
Category: contemporary fiction
Review source: publisher
Rating: 3/5

Lyrically written throughout and an intriguing story at its outset, Beatrice and Virgil lacks something difficult to even describe. Beatrice and Virgil introduces us to Henry, an author who wrote a very popular book. Henry is a not even a thinly veiled stand-in for Martel. He writes about the aftermath of writing a successful novel. The awards, the speaking engagements and the letters he receives from fans and aspiring writers alike. Now Henry struggles to figure out how to publish a flip-book [part fiction/ part non-fiction about the Holocaust].

When Martel eloquently meditates on fiction, it’s provocative. How one defines quality fiction, the importance of literature and technique in writing fiction are all addressed at the beginning of the novel. It makes me wish that Martel would pen a book on how to write fiction.

But fiction and nonfiction are very rarely published in the same book. That was the hitch. Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries—separate aisles, separate floors—and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another. It’s not how writers write. A novel is not an entirely unreasonable creation, nor is an essay devoid of imagination. Nor is it how people live. People don’t so rigorously separate the imaginative from the rational in their thinking and their actions. There are truths and there are lies—these are the transcendent categories, in book as in life. The useful division is between fiction and non fiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies.

Henry receives strange correspondence from a fan. He first puts it aside yet it intrigues him. It’s a dark story called The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator by Flaubert about a child obsessed with killing animals. The admirer also encloses a short excerpt from a play he’s written called Beatrice and Virgil. Henry recognizes these names from Dante’s Divine Comedy. He tracks down the author who’s a taxidermist and Beatrice [a donkey] and Virgil [a howling monkey] exist, stuffed of course, right in his shop. Henry and the taxidermist begin to go through the play and Henry believes it’s reminiscent of the Holocaust and that the purpose of the play might be to shed light or examine the Holocaust but the taxidermist doesn’t come out and say so. Beatrice and Virgil shows only glimpses/ theoretical ideas related to the Holocaust and this happens more than halfway into the novel.

Martel remains very philosophical and there’s much analysis needed to read Beatrice & Virgil which will engage dedicated readers. Martel writes marvelously but unfortunately this story is a bit confusing. Any references to the Holocaust are obscure and indirect [which I suppose is the point and methodology of any true intellectual]. The strange twist at the end disappoints and truly just gives up at the 11th hour on wrapping up the novel with any clear-cut ending or something to keep thinking about afterward. Recently, I saw Yann Martel read from Beatrice and Virgil and then answer some questions. He said there’s no fiction on the Holocaust. Beatrice and Virgil may not be. Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian is amazing.

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