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Highly original: but does it work?
on 17 May 2010
Like Yann Martel himself, Henry is a Canadian author whose second book - which features wild animals - has become both a critical success and a wildly popular bestseller. He then struggles for five years with his next book, which is about the ways that the Holocaust is represented in literature. He thinks he has found a fresh approach to tell the story, but his publisher, editor and agent unanimously reject it. Henry and his wife move away and he takes a break from writing. He starts working in a café, takes up the clarinet and joins an amateur theatrical group. One day he receives a package containing a short story by Flaubert (in which many animals are killed) together with an extract from a original play featuring a discussion between two characters: Beatrice and Virgil. An accompanying note reads: "I need your help". This prompts him to track down the author, an elderly taxidermist (also named Henry) who lives in the same city. Taxidermist Henry has been working on his play for 40 years, but isn't satisfied with it. At this point the plot slows down, and the play becomes the focus of the story.
So Beatrice and Virgil is a strange combination of what seems to be a highly autobiographical memoir with a not-very-compelling mystery, that centres on a play about a donkey and a howler monkey living on a striped shirt - which is itself a fairly laboured and obvious metaphor for something else. And that's the biggest issue for me. When I started reading the book I felt that it was stimulating, riddled with clues and associations, that it was operating on so many levels. But as I read on, I increasingly felt that I was being bludgeoned with the same heavy-handed metaphors over and over. I don't want to give away too much about the ending - which comes abruptly - other than to say that I found it both heart-breaking and blatantly manipulative.
This is a hard book to rate because it's difficult for me to separate my emotional response from my intellectual one. My emotional response is that I didn't like it - I loved the beginning, but hated it by the end - and yet, I still think it has impact and merit. It's interesting and ironic for me that a book which is about an author who wants to write a new and meaningful take on the Holocaust but fails, ultimately becomes a failed attempt to write the very same thing.
Having said that, many parts of the book are beautifully written and are a pleasure to read. Martel has a gorgeous turn of phrase - for example, there's a lovely description early on about the German language and how it differs from the English language.
Beatrice and Virgil would be a perfect book for bookclubs because it's a quick read, it has so many layers and almost everyone is likely to have a strong response - whether positive or negative - to it. There's plenty I'm sure that I didn't "get" - including why the two central characters share the same name.