This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
After the roaring success of one of my favourite books ever — Yann Martel’s Life of Pi — there was much anticipation for his 2010 novel Beatrice and Virgil. Martel once again uses animals for allegory — this time, spicing up the plot with references to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and the heart-wrenching events of the Holocaust. Like his previous novel, Martel explores the concept of having two stories in one book and promotes the philosophy of searching for the better story. He underlines the importance of not making the mistake of dismissing non-fiction and fiction as polar opposites, because one can portray truth in the woven words of fiction, as well as craft a yarn when factually recounting an event in history.
Unfortunately, the glory attained by Life of Pi remains in that book alone. Beatrice and Virgil is novel crafted using relatively similar tools including Martel’s mastery in storytelling with empathetic detail, but the outcome of their respective executions are strikingly different. Martel’s proposed formula for a very exciting novel seems to fall short of the expectations that were so carefully outlined. While the exposition and a good portion of the book seemed to introduce this exciting literary gift — and rather well, at that — the ending is botched. But the move in that seemingly suicidal direction appears strangely deliberate.
Henry is an author who is sobering down from the celebration of his recent novel, a story involving animals and a honest look into humanity. Its plot engages many readers, moves them, and even changes their lives. Many approach him after having read his work, proclaiming their love for the writing, the characters, and him for conceiving the idea in the first place. However, Henry is sound enough to note the distinction between the fame an author receives is much and the fame experienced by musicians or actors, primarily due to who or what is forefront to the public eye. He knows the book is the cover figure — pun intended — and readers get to meet Henry if they take the extra step to read the book’s inner jacket or research credentials. He revels in his given subdued version, his novel the puppet, and he the semi-enigmatic master. Instead of settling on the idea that the book be his pièce de résistance, Henry busies himself with a new novel that employs a rather interesting approach to storytelling in general. He works on it and something materialises.
The work in question is a flip book. But not the type that contains pictures that upon being rapidly flipped with one’s fingers, simulate the movement. This is a flip book containing two pieces approached in two different mediums sewn with the same binding thread. One of the pieces is a fiction story, and the other is a non-fiction essay, both discussing the Holocaust in adherence to their respective genres. Henry has also equipped himself with art direction on how he wants the physical form to look like. There wouldn’t be a back cover, but two front covers: one for each written piece. He also wants both pieces to be bound back to back, one of the pieces to be facing right side up, and the other to be upside down. The last pages of each written piece would meet in what would be the core of the book, regardless of whether the part itself marks the physical centre of the book. According to Henry, this format would give readers the choice to what they feel is the better approach to Holocaust-related themes in the writing.
As intriguing as the unique book format may be, the idea gets bludgeoned by publishers over one lunch, beatings directing to the ego in the form of questions about bar codes, traditional book structures, and the overall lack of understanding on the publishers’ part on what the novel is about. Angered, this causes Henry to push the pen and paper aside for what he believes to be indefinitely. Henry moves on with his life and engages in different pursuits, such as joining community theatre and playing a musical instrument, to distance himself from his failed novel.
After the wounds have healed somewhat, Henry receives a package containing a curt note of admiration of his book and two photocopied documents. The documents are a rather graphic account of the life of a someone called St. Julian the Hospitator, and what appears to be an original piece. The sender is also apparently named Henry, which Henry later learns is not really the person’s identity. An address gives away parts of the sender’s identity, leading Henry to the workshop of an elderly taxidermist who needs help in completing his own piece. Henry, not particularly accustomed to such an elaborate gesture in requesting assistance in other people’s writings, agrees to help the taxidermist. The taxidermist hastily introduces himself on paper as “Henry” as well, but the reader eventually learns that his identity will never known. Henry gradually immerses himself in the characters of the taxidermist’s charming play, wherein the readers is introduced to two more central characters: a donkey (Beatrice) and a monkey (Virgil). Their introduction also brings forth the stories of the stuffed animals on display in the workshop.
Okay, the ending? What the hell was that about?!
The above was my instant reaction upon completing Beatrice and Virgil. “Indignant” would be an apt description. I felt gypped for expecting a ending far from my own expectations of mind-blowing. I also felt offended, mortified, violated, saddened, and in disbelief with regards to how Martel decided to end this book. The build-up of the story is unbelievable, and the ground was ripped out from under my feet. Unlike Life of Pi, I did not fall in love with the book upon the first read-through. In fact, I wanted to hurl the thing out the window.
Then I calmed down.
In fairness, Yann Martel once again crafts a multi-layered novel where many of its elements carry more weight than just its literal representation. In spite of my negative reaction to the book as a whole, the gist of the story continues to sink in. In fact, I’m still mulling over the deeper significance of Henry, his encounter with the taxidermist (who proves himself to be, well, insane), and the purposes of Beatrice and Virgil as fellow main but fictional-within-fictional characters. With Life of Pi, it would take me months — perhaps years — and numerous re-reads to understand how the novel works. I’m even open to re-reading this novel, though probably not in the immediate future.
I did find a shining gem in this novel, and it is the following quote:
“Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark.”
I found it a beautifully crafted sentence, even more so in its complete context. Again, this is one of the many extracts that I contemplate, and I hope to understand its literary significance eventually.
Readers may complain that Henry bears too much resemblance to Yann Martel himself and his experiences, perhaps even conjuring the notion of the lack in creativity. Did Martel meet his own version of the taxidermist, or something more abhorrent, like a horrific mirror image of himself? But I’d like to think — should this hypothesis prove true — that Martel probably employed this technique on purpose. Perhaps he wanted this novel to go down in conventional flames, and not in unconventional reader’s aftermath. Perhaps he wanted to piss people off, get a rise out of the readers, because stories, like art, are meant to elicit reactions and change people. Perhaps Martel’s self-proclamation of Beatrice and Virgil being a masterpiece — a move seen as arrogant — adheres to one of the cornerstone definitions of a holocaust, an occurrence of great destruction. Perhaps it’s career suicide, or perhaps it’s exploring the art of deliberately crossing the line of human sensibilities.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Perhaps that’s the point.