Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Review: Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel

I'll know I'll have read an excellent book when all I can think once I've finished it is WOAH. 

It's as though the wind has been knocked right out of me. 

It's as though nothing is quite like it was before I read the book. That everything is just...different. But in a good way - a different way.

And I won't want to read anything else for a few days afterwards so that I can savour the aforementioned feelings for as long as possible. Just like when I eat something really delicious, like garlic bread, and I won't want to eat anything else after it so that its delicious garlicky flavour can remain on my tastebuds.

That's just how I felt after reading Martel's Beatrice and Virgil. It was flipping great.

In short

Beatrice and Virgil is comprised of two stories. The main one is about Henry, a writer who is struggling to get his latest book published. This predicament comes after the phenomenal success of his previous novel, which was also made into a film (sound familiar?*). 

Feeling desperately dejected and unappreciated, Henry receives a letter from a mysterious fan, requesting Henry's assistance. The assistance required is not specified. So Henry, who is intrigued, sets out to find out more.

The mysterious admirer turns out to be a reclusive taxidermist, also named Henry. Taxidermist Henry is reluctant to reveal too much information about himself; except when he is asked about taxidermy, which he discusses in a surprisingly captivating manner. The mystery surrounding Taxidermist Henry only encourages Original Henry to continue spending time with the former, despite feeling somewhat unsettled in the taxidermist's presence.

It turns out that Taxidermist Henry is struggling with the writing of his own play, and would like Original Henry's assistance with it. This play, featuring the title characters of the novel - Beatrice and Virgil - becomes the secondary storyline of the book.

Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and howler monkey who have escaped circumstances referred to as 'The Horrors'. Their story, set in a dystopic universe, explores how to cope with experiences that are essentially indescribable.

And so Beatrice and Virgil continues by flipping between Original Henry's peculiar reality and Taxidermist Henry's animal allegory for the remainder of the novel. Along the way, you are taken on a surreal and sometimes obscure philosophical journey; one that at times makes you think, 'Hang on a second Martel, did you really just write that?' But the confident, and often ironic, manner in which Martel writes assures the reader that he knows exactly what he is doing.

Then all of a sudden...BAM!....Beatrice and Virgil comes to an abrupt end. Just like that. Leaving you to wonder, 'My goodness, what on earth just happened there?' 

In three words

Philosophical. Surreal. Beguiling. 

What I liked
  • the ideas that Martel plays with. Such as the distinctions between fact and fiction that Martel blurs (pp.6-7):
Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries - separate aisles, separate floors - and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another. It's not how writers write. A novel is not an entirely unreasonable creation, nor is an essay devoid of imagination. People don't so rigorously separate the imaginative from the rational in their thinking and their actions. There are truths and there are lies - these are the transcendent categories, in books as in life. The useful division is between the fiction and the nonfiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies. 
  • Martel's incredibly exquisite description of a pear. You will never think of pears in the same way again. 

  • Ditto with the way Martel discusses taxidermy. His descriptions shed a whole different light on this vocation. Beatrice and Virgil's focus on taxidermy also, coincidentally, has interesting parallels with the last book that I reviewed, Foer's Eating Animals. Particularly this line (p.97): 'But the worst enemy of taxidermy, and also of animals, is indifference. The indifference of the many, combined with the active hatred of the few, has sealed the fate of animals.' 

What irked me

Sometimes I did feel the book was trying to be a bit too clever for its own good. Or like it was mocking me. However I think that was partly Martel's intention; to force his reader to become a bit uncomfortable. But then he also challenges the reader to question that discomfort by asking us if it is really necessary to think about whatever is making us uncomfortable as we always have. Or can we think about things differently? This may all sound cryptic and ambiguous, but that is what you're in for if you read Beatrice and Virgil. I personally enjoy this sort of writing when it's done well, but it could just as easily turn people away.

You will like this if you enjoy reading
  • books that play with and challenge the status quo
  • books that have make you feel a bit uneasy 
  • books that contain multiple storylines for you to follow

My theme song for this book

* the fact that Beatrice and Virgil so closely mirrors Martel's own real-life events has actually been a major criticism of it. As well as the fact that this book, like Life of Pi, contains an animal allegory. 
Personally I don't consider either of these to be a problem, even if Martel is guilty of being self-indulgent and repetitive. Because I think he has been successful with the two. And if something's working for you, why not give it another crack? But there have been plenty of people to argue otherwise - don't let that stop you from giving Beatrice and Virgil a go though!

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