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Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel Hardcover – Unabridged, April 13, 2010

255 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

Yann Martel on Animals and the Holocaust in Beatrice and Virgil

I often get asked the question why I use animals in my stories. Life of Pi was set in a zoo and featured a number of animals, and animals once again play a prominent role in my new novel, Beatrice and Virgil. Am I a great animal lover? Well, I suppose I am; nature is indeed beautiful. But the actual reason I like to use animals is because they help me tell my tale. People are cynical about people, but less so about wild animals. A rhinoceros dentist elicits less skepticism, in some ways, than a German dentist. I also use animals in my fiction because people rarely see animals as they truly are, biologically. Rather, they tend to project human traits onto them, seeing nobility in one species, cowardice in another, and so on. This is biological nonsense, of course; every species is and behaves as it needs to in order to survive. But this animal-as-canvas quality is useful for a storyteller. It means that an animal that people feel kindly towards becomes a character that readers feel kindly towards.

Why did I choose to write a novel about the Holocaust? There’s nothing personal to this interest; I’m neither Jewish, nor of German or eastern European extraction. I’m a complete outsider who’s been staring at this monstrous massacre of innocents since I first learned about it as a child living in France. It’s as an artist that I’ve kept coming back to the subject. What can I do as an artist about the Holocaust? I believe that if history does not express itself as art, it will not survive in common human memory. And so I took what I knew of the Holocaust, the cumulative knowledge of my reading and viewing and visiting (both to camps in Poland and Germany and to Yad Vashem in Israel and to various museums), and I set it next to that part of me that wants to understand through the imagination. Then I sat down and wrote Beatrice and Virgil.

From Publishers Weekly

Megaselling Life of Pi author Martel addresses, in this clunky metanarrative, the violent legacy of the 20th century with an alter ego: Henry L'Hôte, an author with a very Martel-like CV who, after a massively successful first novel, gives up writing. Henry and his wife, Sarah, move to a big city (Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin), where Henry finds satisfying work in a chocolatería and acting in an amateur theater troupe. All is well until he receives a package containing a short story by Flaubert and an excerpt from an unknown play. His curiosity about the sender leads him to a taxidermist named Henry who insists that Henry-the-author help him write a play about a monkey and a donkey. Henry-the-author is at first intrigued by sweet Beatrice, the donkey, and Virgil, her monkey companion, but the animals' increasing peril draws Henry into the taxidermist's brutally absurd world. Martel's aims are ambitious, but the prose is amateur and the characters thin, the coy self-referentiality grates, and the fable at the center of the novel is unbearably self-conscious. When Martel (rather energetically) tries to tug our heartstrings, we're likely to feel more manipulated than moved. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (April 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400069262
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400069262
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (255 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #849,472 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

Yann Martel, the son of diplomats, was born in Spain in 1963. He grew up in Costa Rica, France, Mexico, Alaska, and Canada and as an adult has spent time in Iran, Turkey, and India. After studying philosophy in college, he worked at various odd jobs until he began earning his living as a writer at the age of twenty-seven. He lives in Montreal.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

123 of 145 people found the following review helpful By Susan Tunis on March 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Coming in to this slight novel--barely more than a novella--all I knew was that it was Yann Martel's "Holocaust allegory," and that it had animal characters. Those animals are the eponymous Beatrice (a donkey) and Virgil (a howler monkey) but they're actually characters in a play within the novel. Let me back up...

The central character of Beatrice and Virgil is a novelist named Henry. Henry has written a very successful book that featured animals as characters. Henry's career, in short, is remarkably similar to that of Yann Martel. The beginning of the novel describes his travails while attempting to publish a follow up to his very successful book. Henry, who is not Jewish, wants to write about the Holocaust. He has noticed that almost all Holocaust fiction is in the style of historical realism. Henry believes there are other ways to have this dialogue, to tell this story. "Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists. To take just three well-known instances of artful witness: Orwell with Animal Farm, Camus with The Plague, Picasso with Guernica. In each case, the artist had taken a vast, sprawling tragedy, had found its heart and had represented it in a non-literal and compact way. The unwieldy encumbrance of history was packed into a suitcase. Art as suitcase, light, portable and essential--was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe's Jews?"

It is this that Henry attempts, but fails, to write. Despite his exalted stature, he is told repeatedly that his book is unpublishable. At this point, sick of publishing and completely blocked, Henry decides to pursue other interests. He and his wife move to an unnamed major city in another county.
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131 of 155 people found the following review helpful By B. Case TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Every time I interact with a work of art that deals with the Holocaust -- be it a film, documentary, novel, painting, photomontage -- I am left traumatized, exhausted, and drained of emotion. Sometimes it takes me days to recover. When faced with yet another major artistic work on the Holocaust, I always pause and ask myself if I want to go through that emotional rollercoaster again. Will this work of art help me better understand? Will it bring me closer to the truth? Is this new work of art worth the pain?

Unfortunately, Yann Martel's new Holocaust novel, "Beatrice and Virgil," is not worth it.

In many ways it is an arresting work that pulled me inside and kept me compulsively reading. It beguiled. It charmed. It triggered an abundance of tantalizing intellectual associations. But, it is a very odd book: an absurdist allegorical play with animal characters, contained within a thinly disguised memoir, enveloped within an odd fictional mystery, and the whole work is interlaced with fascinating, obtuse, intellectual essays. The writing is at times utterly mesmerizing and brilliant; at other times, it is downright boring. Again and again, the book begs the reader to discover where this is all leading. And then finally, in the last 30 pages or so, the reader is hit over the head with an emotional sledgehammer so effectively that the pain of this Holocaust encounter put me in a state of shock. Frankly, I felt manipulated and conned.

So, if this appeals to you, go ahead and read it. For those that loved "Life of Pi," this is nothing like that book. The novel is odd and wonderful, but it also misses the mark. I will not recommend it to my friends, and it is not a work that I would enjoy discussing with a book club.
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Thomas F. Dillingham VINE VOICE on April 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Yann Martel's new novel deserves much more thorough and lengthy discussion than is possible in a brief Amazon review. The complexity and high ambition of the novel are impressive, almost overwhelming. At the same time, its flaws must be recognized, and the serious questions it raises (but may not confront satisfactorily) must be acknowledged.

Martel here attempts a direct challenge to the famous remark by Theodor Adorno (to paraphrase--after Auschwitz, poetry is no longer possible) by writing a work of fiction about the Holocaust, even though the author is not himself a Holocaust survivor. I had a colleague who taught "literature of the Holocaust," but always refused to include any fictional narratives--only factual, truthful, survivors' narratives were allowed in his course. He felt the reality of the Holocaust was such that no fiction could convey it and no writer of fiction had the moral right to attempt it. Martel does not so much contradict that view as explore its implications in the intricate self-reflexive novel he has created. His narrator, Henry, has written a novel the characters of which are animals--a work received favorably enough to make him financially secure--but he is "blocked" since his more recent effort--a novel about the Holocaust that he wants to be published in tandem with an essay on the subject. His editors have concluded that the work is umpublishable because it would never sell--people would not understand what it was.

This Henry receives a manuscript from another Henry, a mysterious man who makes his living as a taxidermist and has written a play--Beatrice and Virgil--in which two animal characters, a howler monkey and a donkey, contemplate the fate of life on earth following some (at first) unexplained calamity.
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