April 15th, 2010

Review: Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice & Virgil

by Yann Martel

After his publisher rejects a draft of Henry's new novel, the author decides to give up writing, even though his first novel was massively successful. He and his wife move to a new city and Henry starts working at a chocolatería and acting with an amateur theater group. He is satisfied with his new life, but one day he receives a package containing a short story by Flaubert and a fragment of a play, in which a character named Virgil describes a pear to a companion, Beatrice. Henry tracks down the author of the note, a creepy taxidermist (also named Henry) living in the same city, and agrees to assist him with the writing of his play. As the taxidermist feeds Henry bits of his play -he refuses to give him a copy of it, and will only read it aloud to Henry when they meet - it becomes clear that the story meant as an allegory, which intrigues and captivates Henry in spite of the reservations he feels for their author.

I'm trying to avoid giving away too much, but it's hard to talk about the book without revealing spoilers. I'll do my best.

Henry-the-author seems like an extremely autobiographical character. Like Martel, he wrote a highly acclaimed first novel that won prizes, was adopted by book clubs and optioned for a movie. And then Henry got a killer case of writer's block after a highly ambitious book, meant to be a fusion of fiction and non-fiction related to the Holocaust, is rejected by publishers. The rejected book sounds quite similar to what Beatrice and Virgil eventually became.

The play-within-a-play, the story of Beatrice and Virgil, is a “Theatre of the Absurd” sort of play heavily influenced by Beckett and his Waiting for Godot. The first scene we're shown, the pear scene, is brilliant, but as the play progresses the characters become plodding and muddled, and finally bogged down in the seriousness of their fate.

Beatrice and Virgil is a meandering book that never seems to find its purpose. Early in the book, Henry meets with his publisher in an attempt to sell them on the idea of his novel. When asked, “What is this novel about?” Henry is unable to answer. I can't help but wonder if Martel, too, would be stumped by this question. The story isn't difficult to read, but it is so layered and thoroughly suffused with symbolism that unraveling whatever message Martel is trying to convey is challenging. The ending is utterly predictable, but getting there was so laborious that I was just happy the book was over. I'm not 'off' Martel by any means. I really liked Life of Pi and I will definitely pick up his next book when it comes out. But I wouldn't really recommend this one.

To read more about Beatrice and Virgil, purchase it or add it to your wishlist click here.