Beatrice and virgil book review
NPR Choice pageIf you write a novel about yourself, stuffed animals and the Holocaust, as Yann Martel has, you wouldn't expect an easy ride from the critics. Martel was always going to struggle to equal the success of Life of Pi, his fabulist novel from about a boy adrift in a boat with a tiger. Though not loved by all, many damning it as "literature lite", it still won the Booker and sold millions. Does it fail? Yes; but only if you want it to.
Beatrice and Virgil
The scene, deliciously bitter, smacks of authentic experience. Soon after the meeting, Henry abandons his writing career and moves with his wife to a foreign metropolis where he spends his time responding to fan mail, doing the odd shift in a cocoa co-operative and cashing in the royalty cheques that his earlier hit still generates.
Beasts of Burden
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It, too, features animals as central characters. It, too, involves a figure who in some respects resembles the author. It, too, is written in deceptively light, casual prose. Martel tries to distance himself a bit from this narrative strategy by attributing the story of Beatrice and Virgil to an amateur playwright, who mourns the dying of animal species around the world and who may actually have been a Nazi collaborator. Art is the suitcase of history, carrying the essentials. Art is the life buoy of history.
It is a sentiment that might have been uttered by Yann Martel, whose bold use of allegory in The Life of Pi won him both the Man Booker Prize and a worldwide readership — the two do not always go together. You can hardly blame a successful novelist for trying to repeat a winning formula and that is basically what Martel does here. The Life of Pi was about a boy stranded in a boat with a Bengal tiger. Beatrice and Virgil are a donkey and howler monkey, respectively. They go on a journey together and hold long conversations, mainly about fruit. The result is a weird, weird book. Paradoxically, it is also a predictable book.
What a perplexing mixture of opposites Yann Martel's long-awaited new novel turns out to be: clarity and confusion, insight and banality, boldness and a persistent, self-monitoring nervousness.
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