Book Review: Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Author: Yann Martel
Title: Beatrice and Virgil : a novel
Publication Info: New York : Spiegel & Grau, 2010.
ISBN: 9781400069262

Also Read By Same Author: The Life of Pi


This novel is about an author named who having written a successful novel about animals sets out to write an experimental book about the Holocaust but meets resistance from his publisher.  This may be Martel writing autobiographically or he may just be trying to make us think that because many things in this novel are not as they seem.  Henry goes into semi-retirement, moves to another city, and through his fan mail is drawn to a strange taxidermist who needs help with writing a play.  The taxidermist, also named Henry, writes about two of the animals he preserved – a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil – who live on a shirt and engage in Beckett-style dialogues.  Henry the author soon comes to realize that the taxidermist’s drama is the representational fable of the Holocaust he had been trying to create.  The dialogues of Beatrice and Virgil are balanced by the equally intriguing dialogues of the author and the taxidermist

That’s all I’m going to give away of the plot, although in a sense that is all it is “about” plot-wise.  The novel is built on its dialogues, the unsettling nature of evil that permeates everything, and the sense that nothing is as it seems.  Even the rather abrupt ending seems to be an author’s trick to make the reader wonder what really happened, whether even a third-person narrator can be reliable.  I’ve read a lot of reviews about this book and it seems to be a polarizing work.  A lot of the reviews state that Martel trivializes the Holocaust and a lot seem to take the action of the novel at face value.  I don’t want to say that they don’t get it because that would imply that I do get it which I don’t.  Still there’s a lot going on in this short, experimental work that makes it an interesting read, albeit not a masterpiece like Life of Pi.

Favorite Passages:

“Words are cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field – but they’re all we have.”

Recommended books: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket,  Maus by Art Spiegelman and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.
Rating: ***1/2