Beatrice and Virgil--Yann Martel

I should start this review by saying that I read and enjoyed Beatrice and Virgil, because much of the rest of what I have to say will not sound like I did.  I must also say that I really like Life of Pi mostly before everyone else jumped on board.  I liked it for reasons that, while not opposed, are certainly not in conjunction with most of the comments I've seen on it.  I liked it for sheer surrealism, for comment of religious life, and for the elegance of the mysterious island.  I say this because I find similar elements in Beatrice and Virgil which have me liking the book even while I think it does not quite achieve what the author desired.

Beatrice and Virgil is a convoluted play within a story within a metafiction.  It attempts to be philosophical both about the purposes of fiction and about the literary approaches to the holocaust.  An attempt to limn the contours of the story would likely not provide a whole lot of information about what really goes on.  Henry is an author who has written a successful novel, not unlike Yann Martel's first big hit.  He comes up with the idea of doing a "flip book" on the holocaust in which one side of the flip is nonfiction and the other side is fiction.  This little idea goes aglay and Henry ducks out for another country.  Meanwhile he answers much of his fan mail regarding his first book.  In doing so, he meets another author--one who sends him a highlighted copy of Gustave Flaubert's St. Julian the Hospitalier.  Turns out this guy is a play-writing taxidermist--enter his characters Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a howler monkey.

Yes, despite all of this the book does turn out to be a metaphorical examination of some of the aspects of the holocaust--and it is intriguing reading.  Stumbling in and out of all of this metafictional commentary and literary criticism is the germ of an idea about the holocaust that seems impossibly wrong.  Either Mr. Martel (or Henry) is woefully ignorant of holocaust literature, or he has chosen for purposes obscure to me to ignore the huge fiction-based holocaust literature which includes such luminaries as D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel, William Styron's Sophie's Choice, Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic, Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and literally countless others.  Perhaps this is also just a metafictional conceit designed to provoke a response from the reader to Henry's own ignorance, which is what I should be critiquing rather than Mr Martel's.

Whatever the case, the problem is that everything becomes just a little too precious--the story told from about six removes using an animal holocaust to hide the underlying human holocaust and stand in for it, Mr. Martel's entire movement toward commentary on the holocaust, and even the donkey and howler monkey living in the land of Shirt. 

All of this said, I find Mr. Martel's prose beautiful and his ability to tell a story, regardless of how difficult and convoluted, is remarkable.  I found myself dragged through the book by the compelling nature of what Mr. Martel was trying to say.  And while I don't think the book is ultimately successful at achieving the author's end, it makes for a very disconcertin and thought-provoking read.

Recommended--***1/2

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