Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: BEATRICE AND VIRGIL by Yann Martel

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

I feel as if this book is a study on taxidermy, but I know it’s not, despite the huge amount of information I learned about taxidermy while reading this. It’s actually about animals and their suffering.

This story is about an author named Henry who receives a letter from a taxidermist who says he needs Henry’s help. Henry travels across town to meet the taxidermist in his shop and becomes engrossed in all his works of taxidermy, finding particular interest in a howler monkey named Virgil that’s perched atop a donkey named Beatrice. The taxidermist presents to Henry a manuscript of a stage play that he wrote, featuring Beatrice and Virgil as its two main characters. The entire novel is spent discussing the play, the taxidermist reading excerpts, and Henry giving critiques and talking about its meaning.

It seems like the play is the actual story, and the narration surrounding the play is Martel telling the readers, through Henry, why the play is symbolic and meaningful, while the actual novel itself lacks meaning. The best part of this book is the play, the parts of it that we readers get to experience. I do NOT mean all the talking about the play, but the actual play itself that I like. It’s the kind of play that could be a work of literature on its own (maybe). (For some reason, the play reminds me of Waiting for Godot, probably intentionally, because Martel does make a reference to Beckett in the book.)

Although most of the writing in the actual book was bland, the passages from the play were lyrical, full of imagery and symbolism. There were sentences of beautiful description, metaphors akin to those in Life of Pi. At one point, we are given a seven-page description of a pear, and it was delightful. The writing style remains similar to what I expected to see from Yann Martel, and that is the main reason I read this book: Life of Pi is one of my favourites, a masterpiece of literature that I will always treasure. Surely an author that creates a work as ethereal as that one will continue to write books that tantalize my senses, but that was not really the case with most of Beatrice and Virgil. It probably doesn’t help that I wasn’t overly interested in the premise of this book and picked it up purely because of the author.

While I did like the play, I didn’t want to spend the whole book reading it and reading about it. It was interesting, but its prevalence caused the book to have no plot and become bogged down in the middle because I just kept waiting for the plot to jump out and start going. One of the problems with this play in Beatrice and Virgil is that, while it is full of symbolism that is deeply meaningful, Martel struggles to communicate why the symbolism is important and what the actual meaning is. I just felt like he tried too hard to write a book to the caliber of Life of Pi, but the book itself wasn’t even what was indicative of his writing style, it was the play in the book.

This novel does a lot of literary things that I’m having trouble explaining. The story from Henry turns into the story from the taxidermist, which turns into the story from Henry again. Not literally but figuratively, and it’s very interesting how all facets of the novel link together to create meaning. I love how the story comes full circle in the end, connecting the taxidermist’s play to Henry’s novel that he tried to publish at the beginning of the story. This is the kind of book I would have liked to read in school so I could ink out all the meaning and get my thoughts to be coherent about it. I’m thinking about many aspects of this book, all related, but I can’t create a picture with them in my head.  (My entire description of this book is becoming very convoluted; I’m sorry.) I think this is the kind of book I need to read twice to really grasp all that it’s trying to communicate with me, but alas, I don’t really want to reread it.

Martel mentions many works of literature in this book, real works by other famous authors, moderns and classics alike. I’m sure if I had read all those pieces of literature prior to reading this book, I would have a deeper grasp of the story and all its nuances of meaning. The only story I was even remotely familiar with was Dante’s Divine Comedy. Beatrice and Virgil were named after characters from Dante’s work (I’m glad the author mentioned the reasoning behind those names and how they relate to The Divine Comedy because I think the reason is significant to the story). Also, the taxidermist makes a comment about traveling through Dante’s Inferno. This comment held significance in the story because the fate of all the characters at the end relates to that idea. I don’t mind when authors reference other authors’ works in their books, but a book needs to be able to be understood on its own without the reader having any knowledge of other books. The references should merely enhance the reading experience, not be the support that an entire book is built on.

I wonder if Beatrice and Virgil is a fictional memoir of Martel in some way. I’ve noticed a number of subtle parallels between protagonist Henry and author Yann Martel. Henry’s son’s name is Theo, and Martel’s son’s name is also Theo. In Beatrice and Virgil, Henry wrote his debut novel about animals and it was a wild success, just like Life of Pi was for Martel. Now Henry is trying to publish his sophomore novel about the Holocaust and the all editors think it stinks. I’m wondering if, like Henry, Martel tried to publish a novel/nonfiction essay about the Holocaust and the idea didn’t work for his publishers, so he wrote this book instead, a book that addresses the Holocaust from an entirely new, subdued perspective. On the surface, this story is primarily about animals, but in the crevices of the story, we see the suffering of animals and the effect it has on them; this is not unlike the effect of the Holocaust on everyone involved. This idea of Martel portraying himself in this work is all purely hypothetical, but with so many parallels that already exist between protagonist Henry and author Yann Martel, I’m wondering if there are more similarities than meet the eye.

A note on the cover: I wasn’t particularly fond of the cover at first, but now after having read the book, I appreciate how relevant it is to the play in the story. Every aspect of the cover is mentioned in the play, and I’m glad to see the cover art remain true to the story.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read this book, but I was right in my assumption that it wouldn’t live up to Life of Pi. It was an odd sort of story that was enjoyable at times and dragged at others. It was full of potential and deep meaning but failed to fully communicate its importance to the audience. I will probably continue to read Yann Martel’s work in the future, but I will also probably continue to be disappointed with it.

“If you are pitched into misery, remember that your days on this earth are counted and you might as well make the best of those you have left.”

No comments:

Post a Comment