Beatrice and Virgil

I’ve just finished reading Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil. I came to the book a little unusually, in that I had no idea before I picked it up, what it was about. I’d read The Life of Pi, and enjoyed it, and I loved the movie, so I saw his name on a shelf, and thought it’d be good to read. [SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers follow from here out].

My memory of The Life of Pi is of a sudden, visceral reaction when Martel recasts the whole story, towards the end of the piece, changing everything you thought you knew about the story.

In a similar way, Beatrice and Virgil finishes with sudden, gut-wrenching chapters. There’s a sudden shift in tempo and subject matters, and a similar, strong, visceral reaction. Having just finished reading only moments ago, I’m genuinely uncertain how I feel about the whole thing. Truthfully, I think it leaves me with more questions, than anything else; but rather than questions about the subject matter, they’re questions about story-telling, about narrative and voice.

Beatrice and Virgil has had some quite negative feedback, particularly compared to Martel’s earlier work. A New York Times review called it a ‘disappointing and often perverse novel‘, and the Washington Post calls it ‘not alive, not even lifelike‘.

I don’t know that my reaction is that strong. Some of the obvious critiques – a slow moving plot, unfleshed out characters – aren’t necessarily terrible things in themselves. Other writers have written exceptional books with slow moving plot-lines and simple sketches of characters (Murakami and Saramago come to mind).

As I think of it though, most of the visceral power of the final, gut-wrenching chapters comes from its depiction of the Holocaust, and not necessarily from anything that Martel has done to imbue his characters with personality. It is simply the Holocaust, transplanted into the pages; and it doesn’t have any personal relevance for any of the characters, really (except for a suddenly introduced connection to the taxidermist at the end). To me it feels a little as though the book uses the Holocaust, rather than saying something important about it.

There is a torture scene where Beatrice suffers terribly; it’s not clear to me, though, whether that’s meant to be an allegory of torture done to donkeys, or of something that happened during the Holocaust. He shifts back and forth between the two frames of reference, and by the end if feels a little lost.

And the final, sudden twist that reveals the taxidermist for a different person – it feels sudden, and jarring. Perhaps there is a space for a character to realise ‘everything I knew was wrong’ – but as readers, we’re reliant on the narrator. If the narrator is suddenly to change his or her mind, and demonstrate their fallibility, it needs to be handled carefully; this felt as though it jarred a little (although it happened so quickly it was harder to notice).

Writing novels is hard, and I think everyone who tries and succeeds deserves credit for that alone. But as a piece of writing, this doesn’t live up to The Life of Pi. It has two memorable characters – Beatrice and Virgil – but otherwise there’s nothing that I’d recommend about it.

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