Review: Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Published 22/08/2010 | 05:00
YANN Martel created a stir when he won the Booker Prize in 2002 with Life of Pi, the story of a teenage Indian boy, only survivor of a shipwreck, sharing a lifeboat with a tiger in the Pacific.
There was, naturally, nothing autobiographical about the novel -- always a good start -- and it was translated into 38 languages and went on to sell some seven million copies.
Quite why readers took to this improbable saga with such passion may be a mystery to some, though the old man-against-nature yarn always has appeal, and the main character is simpatico. His survival skills are impressive too, and his generally optimistic outlook on life is refreshing.
My main memory of Life of Pi is the author's intense emotional feeling for animals and the convincing expression of the boy's rapport with the Royal Bengal tiger.
Eight years later, Martel gives us Beatrice and Virgil and, frankly, one reader would like to meet someone who would convincingly claim to have grasped its import. We start with a writer, Henry, who after being told that his new book simply will not work slouches off with his wife to an unnamed city to live on the money he made from a previous book.
There he takes up working in a chocolaterie and dabbling in amateur theatricals. He gets lots of fan mail -- the earlier book was a hit -- and one day is intrigued by a heavily underlined photocopy of Flaubert's short story The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller (in which the hero kills numerous animals and then his parents), and a few pages from a play, followed by a note saying, "I need your help". There is a signature and an address.
Henry has some knowledge of Flaubert but fails to spot the obvious resemblance in the play fragment to Beckett's Waiting For Godot.
He does observe the fact that the names of the characters in the play, Beatrice and Virgil, come from Dante's Divine Comedy. Beatrice, by the way, is a donkey and Virgil a howler monkey, and when we meet them first V is telling B, in elegant descriptive prose, what a pear is. Henry begins to visit the would-be playwright, who turns out to be a taxidermist. He is monosyllabic, charmless and a bit sinister, and quite what help he requires from Henry is not clear. Henry is drawn back several times to hear more fragments of the play, though he is baffled by the whole business -- a condition in which, I suspect, most readers will find themselves.
Presumably the play is an allegory of some sort: there are various oblique references to the Holocaust in Martel's text and Beatrice and Virgil, waiting by the tree, seem to share the fear of the outside world that we see in Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon. They are endangered, we deduce, and the theme of animals being driven into extinction runs through the novel.
The talking donkey and howler monkey are quite endearing (how would you put them on a stage?) and we don't want anything unpleasant to happen to them. But, needless to say, it all ends in tears.
I didn't find Beatrice and Virgil boring. For page after page it held my attention, and the atmosphere of foreboding is impressively done. Perhaps all worthwhile works of art have an element of obscurity; I would have liked to pull back the veil on this one.