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Beatrice & Virgil [Kindle Edition]

Yann Martel
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (247 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well.
Yann Martel’s astonishing new novel begins with a successful writer attempting to publish his latest book, made up of a novel and an essay. Henry plans for it to be a “flip book” that the reader can start at either end, reading the novel or the essay first, because both pieces are equally concerned with representations of the Holocaust. His aim is to give the most horrifying of tragedies “a new choice of stories,” in order that it be remembered anew and in more than one way.
But no one is sympathetic to his provocative idea. What is your book about? his editor repeatedly asks. Should it be placed in the fiction section of a bookstore or with the non-fiction books? a bookseller asks. And where will the barcode go? To them, Henry’s book is an unpublishable disaster. Faced with severe and categorical rejection, Henry gives up hope. He abandons writing, moves with his wife to a foreign city, joins a community theatre, becomes a waiter in a chocolatería. But then he receives a package containing a scene from a play, photocopies from a short story by Flaubert – about a man who hunts animals down relentlessly – and a short note: “I need your help.”
Intrigued, Henry tracks down his correspondent, and finds himself in a strange part of the city, walking past a stuffed okapi into a taxidermist’s workshop. The taxidermist – also named Henry – says he has been working on his play, A 20th-Century Shirt, for most of his life, but now he needs Henry’s help to describe his characters: the play’s protagonists are a stuffed donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively, and Henry’s successful book was in part about animals. He wants help to finish his play and, we may suspect, free himself from it. And though his new acquaintance is austere, abrupt and almost unearthly, Henry the writer is drawn more and more deeply into Henry the taxidermist’s uncompromising world.
The same goes for the reader. The more we read of the play within the novel, the more we find out about the lives of Beatrice and Virgil – in a series of initially funny, and then increasingly harrowing dialogues – the more troubling their story becomes. As we are drawn deeper into their disturbing moral fable, the relationship between the two faltering writers named Henry becomes more and more complex until it can only be resolved in an explosive, unexpected catastrophe.
Though Beatrice & Virgil is initially as wry and engaging as anything Yann Martel has written, this book gradually grows into something more, a shattering and ultimately transfixing work that asks searching questions about the nature of our understanding of history, the meaning of suffering and the value of art. Together it is a pioneeringly original and profoundly moving accomplishment, one that meets Kafka’s description of what a book should be: the axe for the frozen sea within us.

From the Hardcover edition.

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.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1387 KB
  • Print Length: 217 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0143418246
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada (April 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003CXAM46
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #731,555 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
121 of 142 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Holocaust in a suitcase 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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125 of 149 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Worth the Emotional Toll 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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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Could be more than five, or fewer 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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
Loved Life with Pi and was so disappointed that this book didn't draw me in nearly as much.
Published 18 days ago by LMD
5.0 out of 5 stars Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Beautifully written. Very disturbing - a different way to get a sense of the horror of the holocaust. So - not a fun read, but a deep read.
Published 20 days ago by Nancy
4.0 out of 5 stars Autobiographical Elements Work only in Retrospect
Four elements form this novel, listed in order of appearance: 1) A narrative following a thinly disguised Yann Martel; 2) fragments of a story entitled “St. Read more
Published 1 month ago by W. J. TAYLOR
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Good book overall but Life of Pi is my favorite for sure.
Published 1 month ago by Lisa Marshall
2.0 out of 5 stars A Jumbled Mess
To be honest, I just finished this and am completely confused by it. I definitely didn't like it and, like many others, felt manipulated by it. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Alexandra
3.0 out of 5 stars I Liked It, with a Big BUT
How do you follow a truly great book like LIFE OF PI without inviting invidious comparison? I guess if one is a novelist, one HAS to follow up one novel with another (unless your... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Clarice
1.0 out of 5 stars ... Book Club confirmed I wasn't the only one who disliked the...
Could not even finish reading the book and the references made at Book Club confirmed I wasn't the only one who disliked the brutality.
Published 3 months ago by Gloria D. Williams
2.0 out of 5 stars What happened?
I really enjoyed this novel until the last thirty pages, which completely baffled me. The strongest aspects of the story were its subtlety and ambiguity, but the last part of the... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Rebecca Figueroa
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, Disturbing, and a waste of time!
Honestly I really tried to get into it and hoped i would but halfway through the book i still wasn't feeling it... At all! Read more
Published 4 months ago by KatKinney
3.0 out of 5 stars Haunting…definitely a strange read
For most of this book, I thought this was a work of non-fiction. It was just written that way, which makes it even more haunting. Read more
Published 5 months ago by C. Skvarce
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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.


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