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Beatrice and Virgil    by Yann Martel order for
Beatrice and Virgil
by Yann Martel
Order:  USA  Can
Spiegel & Grau, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, brings readers a small book that packs a big punch in Beatrice and Virgil. This would make an excellent choice for reading groups because, though I can't say I really enjoyed it, it raised continuous questions, most of which stayed with me (along with a lasting mental itch) after I turned the last page.

This allegorical tale mirrors reality in that Henry (the successful author who is the protagonist) is trying to achieve what Yann Martel actually did, that is to find a unique way to write about 'that horrific and protracted outbreak of Jew hatred that is widely known, by an odd convention that has appropriated a religious term, as the Holocaust.' We wonder if Martel is sharing something of himself in musings such as 'Henry had written a novel because there was a hole in him that needed filling, a question that needed answering, a patch of canvas that needed painting - that blend of anxiety, curiosity and joy that is the origin of art'.

After Henry fails to convince his publishers of the merit of his work (which took him five years to write and 'was about having his soul ripped out and with it, attached, his tongue') he suffers severe writer's block, or (as he views it) writer's abandonment. Henry and his wife Sarah move to 'a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves', and there adopt both a puppy and a kitten. Then he receives in the mail a story by Flaubert with each mention of a hunter's extermination of animals highlighted, and an odd play excerpt, a dialogue between a donkey and a howler monkey, named Beatrice and Virgil.

As it begins the play reminded me of Waiting for Godot. Virgil tries to explain a pear to Beatrice who has never set eyes on, or eaten, one. Intrigued, Henry tracks down the author (another Henry), a strange and very reticent taxidermist whose superlative work includes a stuffed donkey and a stuffed howler monkey, which he calls his 'guides through hell.' On successive visits, the old man reads scenes from his play (in which Beatrice and Virgil eventually refer to The Horrors) to Henry. When asked why he became a taxidermist, he says he 'wanted to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been done' and to bear witness.

As Henry spends more and more time with the old man (against Sarah's wishes), horrors infiltrate his own life and he is haunted by them. At the end all that is left of his sessions with the taxidermist is an 'incomplete story of waiting and fearing and hoping and talking.' Don't read Beatrice and Virgil for entertainment - you will start by wondering where it's going and feel compelled to keep reading to find out, only to be drawn in to a reluctant empathy with what Beatrice and Virgil - and both Henry's - are going through. Do read it to share in bearing witness.

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