The environment of Beatrice and Virgil is anything but nourishing. The landscape is bleak. For the most part, two characters hover around a tree in barren space.
Panned by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, I found Yann Martel’s story haunting. It slips into waking moments and has entered my dreams, which is a bit unnerving but says volumes about the power of the story.
Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: there’s neither plot nor action to speak of. But unlike Beckett, Martel’s characters are animals, not tramps – the donkey Beatrice and the howler monkey Virgil. Martel also alludes to Animal Farm among other literary references. Perhaps, too, he’s evoking the dark side of his very successful Life of Pi. Yet another aspect toward understanding Beatrice and Virgil is the obvious allusion to Dante’s Inferno wherein Virgil guides Dante through hell and Beatrice accompanies him through Paradise. However, in this story Paradise is absent. Yet, there’s still one more curve: he’s explicit about the Holocaust, making this story an allegory.
Martel is a philosopher and a writer. As he did with Life of Pi, Martel frames his story, creating a story-within-a-story. In the beginning, his protagonist philosophizes: “A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real.” This fictional author proposes two stories to his publisher, each with a front cover, a “flip book.” One side would feature an imaginative novel about the Holocaust, while the other side would provide a factual essay. Readers would have “a choice…when dealing with upsetting matters.” Hold the book one way: creativity; the other: historical fact. Given the subject, the publisher wants only nonfiction. Henry makes a ploy for including the creative story:
Fiction, being closer to the full experience of life, should take precedence over nonfiction. Stories—individual stories, family stories, national stories—are what stitch together the disparate elements of human existence into a coherent whole. We are story animals.
Henry continues to argue for the flip book idea: “But behind serious nonfiction lies the same fact and preoccupation as behind fiction—of being human and what it means—so why should the essay be slotted as an afterword?” He wants two perspectives and two front covers. He loses the argument and slips into writer’s block. Then we get into the longer middle story—the creative interpretation.
An amateur playwright (also called Henry) becomes the antagonist; the setting is his taxidermy shop where he practices his craft and displays dead animals, many in diorama, including the donkey Beatrice and the howler monkey Virgil. Taxidermist Henry has asked author Henry for his help in writing a play and the writer Henry visits and listens to excerpts read by the tall, gruesome taxidermist. It is not a happy experience, yet he’s drawn to the man, his shop, and the “conversation” between Beatrice and Virgil as excerpts from the script are read to him. Their situation is stark and as gruesome as their creator. Near the novel’s end, the author Henry reflects: “Once you’ve been struck by violence, you acquire companions that never leave you entirely: Suspicion, Fear, Anxiety, Despair, Joylessness.”
After more horror and some healing, author Henry muses about the donkey and the monkey and what his lingering memories mean: “All that remained now was their story, that incomplete story of waiting and fearing and hoping and talking. A love story, Henry concluded.”
A bleak love story, but should we ever be faced with the dystopian reality of Beatrice and Virgil, we could hope for the kind of love they shared.
Beatrice and Virgil is not a story for everyone, but for those who like puzzles and allegories and the “theatre of the absurd,” I recommend Martel’s book to you.
Available through your local bookstore or online: Beatrice and Virgil