Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
After Henry’s wild success with his previous book, one that was a sort of fable with animals, he decided that he wanted to write about the Holocaust. He doesn’t, however, want to just write a nonfiction work about the Holocaust, he wants to bring truth to the history through fiction. But writing fiction is not simply enough either, he wants to present both a fiction and a nonfiction account. Then, of course, there’s the problem of what is placed first, the fiction or nonfiction. Henry’s solution that he pitches to his publishers is a flipbook, with the fiction and nonfiction bound together. Unsurprisingly, this is rejected pretty quickly.
After his idea is shot down, Henry goes into a sort of depression/writer’s block. He and his wife move to a new city in a new country where nobody realizes he is a famous author and he works at a cafe. Then he receives fan mail from a man who just happens to live in the same city as Henry and his wife, a man who includes a snippet of a play featuring character Beatrice and Virgil and asking for help. Intrigued, Henry actually makes notes on the play and heads over to this fan’s address to drop the package off.
Turns out that the fan’s name is also Henry and that he’s a taxidermist. Oh, and Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and a howler monkey that Henry-taxidermist has stuffed in his work room. Really, Henry-taxidermist is just a weird guy all around, but Henry-author spends more and more time with him and with Beatrice and Virgil. Until, you know, there’s a shocking ending because this is Yann Martel, after all.
Okay, so “Beatrice and Virgil” as attracted a lot of vitrol from a lot of big reviewers, but I loved the way Martel wrote it. I thought the language was lovely, and particularly loved the mini-treatise on the merits of fiction in the beginning of the book. I’d already heard that someone called this the “worst book of the decade” (by the way, I don’t think there’s a single thing in that review I agree with), although I was waiting until I finished it to read why, so I sat there reading and thinking “okay, I’m loving it, where does the hating come in?” I continued to love it until 20 or 30 pages before the end of the book, and what destroyed me was not the same thing that the previously-noted review detested.
I hated the ending. At least, I think I did. When I first read the ending, I actually felt sort of numb, wondering what exactly had just happened. The more I talked it over with Rebecca from The Book Lady’s Blog (who had to reread the entire second half of the book after reading the ending – check out her review), the more I felt that I really just didn’t buy the ending. The realizations were too sudden, the responses to those realizations too out of the blue. I was anticipating something totally different that I realize might have been considered derivative, but that I think would have made more sense with the entire book and, frankly, worked better – at least for me. The ending that Martel gave us sort of killed a lot of my enthusiasm for the book, honestly.
Over all I do think it is a worthwhile read, if only because of all of the buzz and dissension it is generating. And, bonus!, it is short and a quick read, so it won’t take you long to determine on which side you fall about whether it is terrible or awesome (or both terrible and awesome).
And if you *do* read it, email me and tell me what you thought of the ending! I want to discuss it with more people!