Sunday, June 10, 2012

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

“Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it's true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn't become story, it dies to everyone except the historian.”

I take no joy in saying this, but Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel’s follow-up to his international bestseller The Life of Pi, is a really bad book. It’s not bad in the way that, say, the latest ghostwritten Clancy novel is, or a cheap science fiction paperback. It’s bad in the way that Rand’s Anthem is, bad in a way that patronizes and insults the reader. It’s pretensions without being able to follow through on its pretensions. The pacing feels like an author that didn’t want to kill his beauties, and finally had the power to save them. 

But lest this sound like a stream of misplaced invective, let’s examine the book itself. It opens on what is essentially the first of two(!) framing stories, following its protagonist, Henry, as he attempts to finish a follow-up to a massively successful first novel, one that used animals to tell a story that was not about animals—sound familiar? Henry’s second novel, as it is described, sounds insufferable. It is envisioned, Henry tells us, as a flip-book, where one side is a novel about the Holocaust and the other is a non-fiction essay about the same. His editors understandably reject this conceit, and, after railing against them for several pages, Henry decides to take his wife and journey to France, where he settles. This is, notably, about the first 3rd of an already short book, and boy, is it a ham-fisted slog. It’s entirely unnecessary, for one thing, and it serves only to emphasize how one note Martel’s themes are. Like the message about stories reflecting truth in Pi? You’ll love hearing it spelled out here (and throughout the book) over and over and over.

Well, Henry moves to France and, long-seeming story short, meets a taxidermist, also named Henry, after receiving several pages of a play he’s written. The pages concern a monkey, named Virgil, and a donkey, named Beatrice, discussing a pear. The excerpt is interesting—and the writing in the play is consistently better than the writing in the rest of the novel—but it also introduces the book’s first big snag; namely, that the taxidermist is an entirely unpleasant person who causes stress in Henry’s marriage and upsets the fine life he’s made for himself, and we, as readers, are intended to understand that Henry pursues this relationship so he can read the rest of a play that, frankly, is structured so much like Waiting for Godot that I half-expected Beatrice to enter scene eating a boot. Most people aren’t going to upset their life for second-rate Beckett. After an interminable period of Henry coaxing the play out of the taxidermist one scene at a time, we’re treated to the big reveal, which must be SPOILED BELOW so I can discuss what really bugged me about the book.

It turns out that the taxidermist was a Nazi sympathizer, and Beatrice and Virgil is his attempt at absolving himself of the guilt he feels for doing nothing to stop (or, possibly, actively aiding) the Nazis. So, surprise, Henry’s real life turns out to be the perfect story to tell the Holocaust story he wanted to tell with his crazy flip-book idea, and it turns out that’s the book you’ve been reading. Also, the taxidermist goes crazy really abruptly and stabs Henry and drama, but whatever. Putting aside the banality of the “this is the book” ending (the movie Hugo uses the exact same conceit to greater effect, and that’s for kids), the whole thing is insulting. It’s insulting to me as a reader, because the twist ending is telegraphed about once every 10 pages. It’s insulting a larger scale because this is a book about the Holocaust, as seen by a world-famous author who thinks a masturbatory talking-animal meta-textual novella that barely makes sense communicates the truth of the Holocaust in a more meaningful way than actual history, or the fictional works that attempt to share the horror in a realistic fictional framework. It’s extremely hard to read Beatrice and Virgil and not come away with the idea that Martel is using the Holocaust to add emotional weight to his story about writer’s block, and that’s just wrong. It’s also consistent with the rest of the book’s MO, which uses the pretty disturbing deaths of two animals near the midpoint to score cheap emotional points, even though those deaths don’t add anything to the story aside from that melodramatic button-pushing.

This is a bad book. There’s really nothing to redeem it, aside from a few passages that read nicely and a section involving Beatrice being tortured that, in spite of being just as manipulative as everything else, at least works. I don’t recommend reading it, and it’s probably turned me off Martel for good.

Everyone has read Life of Pi: Brent Carlton Christopher Jim