Monday, April 19, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel is the hot book this week, so I’m going to start with that one to show how up-to-date and “with-it” I am. Yeeah.

I’ve got to preface this with a disclaimer…I find Martel very difficult to read. He’s too good. He can be brutally descriptive, and I both recoil from it and find it very effective. This works to great effect in Beatrice and Virgil. A second disclaimer: I don’t want to spoil anything for the gazillions who will read this book, so if I’m a little mysterious, bear with me.

The story is narrated by an author, Henry, who is contacted by a mysterious stranger asking for his help. Assuming the stranger to be a fan who wants some help with a manuscript, or an autograph, Henry arrives at a taxidermy shop whose owner (another Henry…. hmmm) is writing a play featuring a donkey and a howler monkey. They are named Beatrice, and Virgil, respectively. (Another hmmm… anyone read Dante’s Inferno lately?)

Henry the Taxidermist (or Henry the T as he will henceforth be called, to differentiate him from Henry the N) wants Henry the N’s help with his play, but will only reveal scenes one at a time, which he reads aloud, and in the order he chooses. Henry the N, despite himself, is intrigued, as much by Henry the T’s wonderful shop as he is by the taciturn Henry T.

As I was meant to, I was enchanted by Beatrice and Virgil, and increasingly protective of them. Their behavior is fearful, and the reasons why are slowly revealed.

The astute reader (as we are) figures out pretty quickly, as does Henry the N, that the play is really an allegory for the Holocaust…a story that Henry the N has also been trying to tell in a new way. This is the help that Henry the T is looking for. And yes, Beatrice and Virgil are guides to Henry’s hell, with Henry the T as Charon, as yet another allegorical aside.

I think Martel’s brilliance lies in his choice of animals as the victims. In using animals, Martel brilliantly captures our sentimentality for our furry friends, while revealing our callousness to the suffering of human beings. As a society, we are sometimes more protective of our pets than of our neighbors. The shock I felt at animals being treated brutally shamed me. Are they somehow more innocent than innocent people? Are they more defenseless? I realized that brutality to animals seems worse to me, more unfair; crueler; than brutality to people.  And I don't think I'm alone in that.  Hello, PETA.

Once he has made his point, Martel drives it home with a series of questions that will haunt you for weeks.

Beatrice and Virgil is incredibly powerful, beautifully written, wise and compelling.

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; (April 13, 2010)

ISBN-10: 1400069262
ISBN-13: 978-1400069262

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