Having had great success with one animal fable, 2003’s Booker Prize-winning, seven million-selling Life of Pi, Yann Martel has gone one better: an animal fable in the shape of a play within a play.
Beatrice and Virgil is the story of Henry, a novelist who believes that more “poetic license” should be taken with the Holocaust. Conveniently enough, he meets a strange taxidermist also named Henry, who has written a play – featuring a donkey, Beatrice, and a howler monkey, Virgil – that tackles precisely that subject.
Martel is principally interested in how we can talk about something like the Holocaust: is it possible for such awfulness to be represented? Is art the right way to bear witness? Hence Virgil and Beatrice’s story initially reads something like Waiting for Godot, always striving to express ideas just beyond expression, but then becomes something much darker as the full horror is revealed.
Martel’s problem is that his human characters seem flat and lifeless compared to the animals in which he excels. And much of the fable’s imagery, and hence the whole book, is clunkingly obvious – and is then carefully explained for the reader anyway.
Even if this simplicity is the point – that directness and honesty are in the end the only valid response to true evil – reading Beatrice and Virgil remains a grating way to pass a few hours. Nor does Martel really demonstrate that a Beckett-style fable of a donkey and a monkey can capture the true brutality of great evil.
Individually, Virgil and Beatrice are deeply affecting creations, pathetic in every sense, but the novel surrounding them is less than the sum of its parts. Martel may need to master more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak.
First published in Time Out