Beatrice and Virgil

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Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel, book reviewHenry is a writer with a couple of successful novels behind him which brings him the genteel recognition of his readers and numerous letters from respectful ‘fans’. His latest attempt to wow the literary world is a ‘flip book’ – twin books presented upside down from each other with no indication how you should read it. Henry thinks he’s being clever – it’s half a fictional account of the Holocaust and half a long academic essay on the same subject. You have wonder why he was surprised when the editor and other worthies gave his manuscript a big thumbs down. In shock Henry persuades his wife to move away with him to an unnamed big city where they get a cat and a dog and he finds a job as a waiter.

Henry’s correspondence from his readers follows him to the new city where one day he receives a strange manuscript of a play in which two characters – Beatrice and Virgil – are discussing a pear and how much they’d like to have one. Henry realises the writer is in the same town and goes to meet him. He finds an elderly taxidermist who’s looking for help on his manuscript – or is he? It’s not really clear what the old man’s after. He reveals that Beatrice is a donkey and Virgil is a howler monkey.

Trotting back and forth to visit the strange old man, Henry tries to get his head round the tail of the two unlikely animal friends. It’s clearly a fable of some kind but he’s not sure what the moral is. The animals live on a shirt, a striped shirt, and are starving. Your plot antennae will be twitching, maybe it’s something to do with the Holocaust, just like Henry’s manuscript. Or is it?

Normally by the time I’m half way through a book I expect to have a pretty firm idea of what’s going on. Half way through Beatrice and Virgil I still wasn’t ‘getting’ it. Two thirds of the way and things were little better. By the end I just wondered why I’d bothered. I was hoping for a stunning denouement where everything would fall into place but trying to write this review I’m still really not sure what happened. And I’m sorry to say that I didn’t really care.

“I desperately wanted to like this novel…”

I loved Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi. I had to be dragged onto a plane after a 36 hour delay because I couldn’t bear to stop reading. It hooked me all the way through but Beatrice and Virgil just had me wondering whether there was something really important that I’d missed or whether there really wasn’t any meat on the scrawny bones of these starving animals. Are the donkey and the howler monkey representing something? Clearly they are but who and how is another matter altogether. I wondered if the donkey somehow symbolised a connection with Christ riding into Jerusalem in the Palm Sunday story – perhaps, probably not. I didn’t recall too many howler monkeys in any religious texts.

Beatrice and Virgil are names associated with Dante’s Divine Comedy – but I only know that because Yann Martell told us fairly early on. Beatrice shows Dante through heaven and Virgil shows him through hell – neither seemed to be showing me much at all. Perhaps if I had read Dante, it might all fit into place, but I rather doubt it.

Beatrice and Virgil is a slim book at just 197 pages of text, many of which are quick reads because they are presented as dialogue for a play. Slim or not, it felt like hard work. The best part of me was the set of ‘Games for Gustav’ which Henry appends at the end of the book. These are little moral and ethical puzzles which did make me stop and think.

I desperately wanted to like this novel. I waited with anticipation for its release but with the book completed I’m left wondering if I would have finished it if I didn’t owe the publishers a review at the end. I learned a bit about the work of a taxidermist, picked up some Dante trivia but was left feeling almost as hungry for plot as the poor animals had been for food and affection.

Many thanks to the lovely people from Canongate for sending me a copy but sadly this one didn’t work for me. Sorry.

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Published by Canongate, paperback, July 2011

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Beatrice and Virgil
by Yann Martel

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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