I am a child of postmodern literature. In college, my postmodern lit class with Samuel Smith was my favorite lit course because it gave me the framework to talk about all the things I love – metanarrative, self-referentiality, deconstruction. Yann Martel’s new book Beatrice and Virgil contains all these things – a play within a novel, the commentary on writing that applies to the book itself, a complexity of story lines that can, ultimately, be broken down into one central theme – the value of suffering. Good stuff.
The basic plot is that a writer, Henry, has given up on writing because his latest book, a “flip book” on the Holocaust (a novel for half the book and an essay on the “flip” side of the book), has been handily decimated by an editorial board. He picks up his life and moves to an unnamed big city where he builds a new existence of waiting tables at a chocolaterie and acting in an amateur theater. Then, one day he gets a package in the mail. The package contains a story by Flaubert and an excerpt from a play. These documents begin a relationship with a skilled taxidermist, the playwright, and bring Henry back, again, to the questions of truth and suffering that he was exploring in his own book.
Some reviewers have called the prose “clunky,” and I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment. At moments, it’s a bit sloggish to make my way through the text. But these moments are more than compensated for by the lovely descriptions – Henry’s write-up of the way a Howler monkey screams is gorgeous. (By the way, what’s with all the Howler monkeys these days? They appear in Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, too.) And the insights about human nature, the Holocaust, and pain are profound, real, true – in fact, they remind me a great deal of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, my favorite play of all time (and a reference Martel also makes in the novel.)
This isn’t an easy read. As I said, the prose is dense at times, and the story, while easy to follow, is multi-layered. Of course, suffering itself isn’t easy and neither are the descriptions of torture and death that come in these pages. But then, I wouldn’t want it to be. If pain is too beautiful, is it really pain?
If you like The Life of Pi, if you enjoy postmodern novels, if you love animals, or if you appreciate fresh writing about the Holocaust, pick up this book. You’ll come to love all the characters, even the hard to love ones.