I have just finished reading Yann Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil. As The Life of Pi is in my top ten books of all time, I was fearful of disappointment and curious whether he could pull off another quirky and interesting book.
Ok, so it is quirky and interesting and some of the writing is glorious but this short novel is at times unbearable and the topic, well, just made me cross.
The book begins with Henry, a successful author, having his book about the holocaust rejected by his publishers because it is too complicated and the public don’t want another book on the topic. He relocates to France with his wife for a change of scene. The introduction is overly long and a quarter of the way into the book the scene is still being set. Once Henry stumbles upon a play-writing taxidermist, things pick up and the story gets interesting.
I know I am not supposed to say this so I will say it really quickly – I am bored by books about the holocaust. The premise for this book is that there should be another way to write about the Holocaust without simply repeating true stories. This could be an interesting idea for an essay and be relevant to people interested in the topic but it is possible to explore man’s inhumanity to man using many other events in history.
The taxidermist, who is writing a play using two stuffed animals as his main characters, is surrounded by animals from Africa so it should have been possible with barely any change to set the play in Rwanda or Zimbabwe or any other genocidal regime whose stories are rarely given a voice.
Once the publishers had rejected Henry’s book in the beginning, I was relieved that we weren’t going to have a book about the Holocaust, but once you get to the end you realise that the whole exercise is a scam to prove that Henry (or Yann) was right and you can write about the Holocaust in a different way. The story within a play within a story is like looking into a pair of opposing mirrors – curious but baffling. This emphasises the feeling that you have been somehow had, that by using smoke and mirrors Yann martel has tricked you into agreeing with him.
This is a shame because there is so much about the book that is extraordinary and there is some truly original thinking to be found.
Well you were right, we were wrong. Hope you are happy Yann.