Book Review: Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil

Every once in a while, I come across a book that thoroughly captures my imagination and causes me to wish that I had written it.  Included in this category are Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Life of Pi tells the story of an Indian adolescent boy named Pi Patel, who, along with a full-grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, are the sole survivors of a shipwreck that claimed the lives of his family and all the other animals of their zoo.  They were in the process of relocating from India to Canada; Pi Patel and Richard Parker continue this journey all by themselves in one of the ship’s lifeboats.  This is an incredibly complex story that is equal parts survival story, coming-of-age story, philosophy textbook, and comparative religion treatise.

Finally, ten years later, Yann Martel has followed up that story with another which is just as impressive.  A donkey, a howler monkey, a struggling writer, a taxidermist, and the Holocaust all come together in an amazingly unlikely tale.

A writer who published a hugely successful first novel several years ago struggles to find inspiration for a follow-up work.  He comes up with the idea of a flip-book on the Holocaust:  one side would be a fictional story and the other would be a nonfiction essay; both would end at the middle.  This is his attempt to remedy what he sees as a problem:  not many people are writing about the Holocaust, and the ones who are, are producing nothing but autobiographical narratives of their own personal Holocaust stories.  He has little success pitching this work to prospective publishers.

He then receives an unsolicited manuscript from a taxidermist who has written a play and wants him to look over it.  Reluctantly, he agrees to do so.  This play is all about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil, and their unlikely friendship.  It hits upon many of the themes that emerged from the Holocaust, but in a very unorthodox way.  He is intrigued by this play, and he begins to get to know the taxidermist.  And then very weird and disturbing things start to happen.  (I’m not going to tell you what they are.  You’ll have to read the book.)

This work stands as an excellent follow-up to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  It approaches the Holocaust in a very fresh and unusual way that forces us to reexamine many of the themes coming out of it; you are hardly even aware that you are reading about the Holocaust until you are well into it.  I strongly recommend this book.