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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel 

Eagerly expected books with talking animals having seemingly meaningless but verily spiritual and metaphysical discussions inveigle the reader into their cocooned world leaving him with the necessary option of retreating into more everyday realities or endeavour to cut through the chatter and experience a feeling of oneness with the ambition of the author. Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil follows his Life of Pi with an experimentative format about an author who valiantly attempts to address the events associated with the Holocaust in a novel manner.

In a visible trope, the character Henry, in ways resembling Martel, bides his time after an award-winning novel on animals, determined to represent the Horrors of the Holocaust in artistic frames structurally and aesthetically different from past depictions. He has laboured arduously to escape from the straitjacket of historical realism for five years coming up with a flip-book, which has a novel for fiction one side and essay for reason on the other. This has two sets of distinct pages attached to a common spine upside down and back to back. Once his effort faces ignominy and ridicule at the hands of his rather more prosaic publishers, he retreats with his wife to another city, eschewing writing altogether amusing himself with theatre & music.

One day Henry receives a package in the post, with a letter and Flaubert's tale The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator, which is a fable on a youngster with a penchant for killing hapless animals. The package also includes sections of a play on two characters named Beatrice and Virgil, standing in a road, by a tree, jabbering idiomatically. Later they offer elemental platitudes about something they call the Horrors. Clear references to Godot & Diderot ! The letter writer lives next door to Henry, is actually called Henry too, is a taxidermist at Okapi Taxidermy and as it happens Beatrice is a stuffed donkey, Virgil a red howler monkey on her back; they are his "guide to hell". The taxidermist has requested author Henry in completing a play called A 20th Century Shirt who agrees and soon struggles with the desultory methods and arcane allusions which the taciturn and unresponsive former persists with.

The book then optimistically uses images of the Holocaust ( which is the Horrors that the animals describe ) to blend history, mystery, allegory and metaphysics as the author Henry experiences pain, fear and suffering vicariously through the animals’ lives. The futility of it all is recurrent in “How are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it’s over ?” The breadth of its ambition is only infrequently matched with the honesty of its characterizations and while it is awash with recursive and pointed parallels, the fulfilment that the reader yearns for battling certain saturnine truisms is never quite realized fully or satisfactorily.

A 6.5 on 10, then.


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