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Beatrice & Virgil – Yann Martel

April 26, 2011

My experience with Beatrice and Virgil started more than six years ago. In my final year of public schooling, the English Department somehow managed to have Yann Martel come to my auditorium and speak. What it is he spoke about I haven’t an idea. I remember being in awe of the fact that an author, and an author of award-winning book, was in my school – speaking to me. I remember being in awe because I thought that was how I was supposed to be.

I had not yet read Life of Pi. In fact, it would be another 5 years before I would. So I was completely unfamiliar with why this man was actually important – other than that I was told he was by the media and by my teachers.

In the question period that followed his speech, somebody asked what it was that he was working on next.

Without going into too many details, or really any at all, he talked about his interest in the Holocaust, and how it is portrayed in literature, and his hope of talking about the Holocaust through the use of animals – a monkey, named Virgil, and a donkey, named Beatrice. I was intrigued.

I thought to myself, “I like symbolism! I like metaphors! I like history, and the Holocaust is interesting! I think I will like that book when it comes out. Which can’t be far from now…”

I bought the book the first week it came out. I’ve only just read it. Some of the reviews that I read, only after having spent my hard-earned cash, made it seem as though it wasn’t very good.

Those reviews were wrong.

But they made me wait to read the book until now – in fact, I am not entirely sure why it is that I took the leap to read a book that is so reportedly bad when I have so many others that are demanding of my attention, that are not reportedly bad; that are, in fact, reportedly fantastic.

But I am glad that I did. And I hope that you do in the near future.

The story is about Yann. Or rather, about a man named Henry, though I think it would be wrong for any person to deny that there are a few moments of autobiography in this book. Or that it is tainted by it throughout. And that the book thrives as a result.

Henry is a writer, who has won awards, and whose previous book had done very well internationally. His follow-up book is about the Holocaust, writing about it as though it has meaning, but treating it as fiction rather than historical fiction. In doing so, the entire novel is immediately cast in the thematic brilliance of truth – a theme that does not arise in Life of Pi until the last chapter. And the book thrives as a result.

Henry’s publisher do no much like his latest book. They don’t know how well it will sell, or how it will sell, or where in the store they will even shelve it so that people can see it so that it can sell. They make suggestions for his re-writing of it. Henry does not take them very well. And stops writing. For years.

At this point in the novel I was disappointed. I figured I was reading a novel about an author who cannot seem to succeed again – and we have all heard that story somewhere. It is very common in the field of music. I wanted a story about the Holocaust.

Henry still received letters from fans around the world in those years where he was not writing. His publishers forwarded them to him. He decided to read them all, respond to them, help answer regular questions about themes from his award-winning book that was immensely successful. And then he received one that changed his life – that introduced him to a man that astounded him, and aggravated him, and gave him a way to write again. The creative block, and the self-imposed writer’s block, ended slowly but eventually. And the end of the novel he releases a new book – a memoir.

But in between the beginning and the end is something that is quite extraordinary in literature. It is a story about the Holocaust without being about the Holocaust. It is allegorical, filled with allusions. It is about truth and literature. And about animals and humans and how the interact and how we perceive them. In a mere 198 pages is produced perhaps the most compelling book about the Holocaust that I have ever read.

Indeed, perhaps even more compelling than Eli Wiesel’s Night.

Because it isn’t about the Holocaust. And the author of the characters that represent the Holocaust – they do not belong to Henry – is an amazing character that, at the end of the novel, shocks you. Three times. In two pages. Two very quickly read pages.

Throughout the novel, Martel uses the semi-autobiographical plot to encourage the reader to undermine his story. And there are moments when you do. For example, the constant reference with the inability to write, and the involvement with a local acting troupe and music lessons to make something creative happen, and the inability to successfully replace writing with another outlet despite his successes, and the references to a pen-name. And the use of animals. Martel wants us to discount him because once again he is using animals to tell the story.

But the animals in this story are different. They suffer. And we love them before they suffer. They have voices, and fears, and a friendship. They love. And when they do suffer I cringed. When they suffered again, I cried. Which I don’t do with books. And when the novel ended with some Games for Gustav I cried again – the parity between this allegory and the Holocaust was complete.

With this book, Martel succeeded totally and completely in writing about the Holocaust without writing about the Holocaust. This is a much more tightly written and convincing piece of literature than Life of Pi. This is the book that should be read in classrooms around the world. Everything draws on everything else, and when the ending arrives, it feels complete and still raises some harrowing questions about truth and meaning, animals and people. Read this book.

As a side note, this book made me want to read Gustav Flaubert – it will likely have the same effect on you. I won’t tell you why, but I will tell you that, come the ending, you will realize how important it is to the story; you feel as though reading him will only possibly enhance that which you have experienced in this book.

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