Melissa's Reviews > Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
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's review
Sep 02, 2011

it was amazing
Read in August, 2011

As I was reading this book, I had no idea whether this would be a 1 ranking or a 5. It begins with a best-selling author, Henry, who decides that the Holocaust suffers from its presentation only through first hand accounts and historical works and thus decides to write a flip book about the Holocaust (one half of the book is an essay, the other half is a fictional work) claiming “art is the suitcase of history, carrying the essentials. Art is the life buoy of history. Art is seed, art is memory, art is vaccine.” His editors hate the idea because it lacks a specific genre, and thus cannot be shelved properly in a bookstore, and with no ending, (heaven forbid!) there is no place for the barcode. Henry, crushed by the reaction, retreats from writing, and begins other hobbies to fill the void that writing once occupied.

Despite no longer writing, Henry religiously responds to fan mail. When he receives a letter with a curious story by Flaubert attached and highlighted and a request for help, he finds himself drawn into the life of a taxidermist, who is working on a play about a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice. Henry finds this strange, and as the old, grim taxidermist begins reading the play aloud, Henry, like the reader, is frustrated and confused about where this is going and what it is actually about. The play itself, reminiscent of Beckett, has the two characters talking to one another without any actual plot or action. Their conversations range from a lengthy discourse about a pear that had aspects so beautifully written (“An apple resists being eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to ... kissing”) to bigger life concerns about memory, faith, and self preservation.

“To my mind, faith is like being in the sun. When you are in the sun, can you avoid creating a shadow? Can you shake that area of darkness that clings to you, always shaped like you, as if constantly to remind you of yourself? You can't. This shadow is doubt. And it goes wherever you go as long as you stay in the sun. And who wouldn't want to be in the sun?”

I am truthfully ambiguous about the quality of the writing itself. It felt overambitious in what it was trying to accomplish and the play itself was overwrought. The real reason I am giving this a five is because I cannot stop thinking about this book. There are many books that I put down, think about for the afternoon, maybe recommend to a friend, and then don’t think about again until I hear some mention of it. Beatrice and Virgil are embedded in my brain. The ending (although some aspects were foreshadowed) shook my core and the book’s final section, “Games for Gustav”, was horrific and heartbreaking simultaneously. One game I cannot escape is game three:

“You are holding your granddaughter’s hand. Neither of you is well after the long trip with no food or water. Together, you are taken to the infirmary by a soldier. The place turns out to be a place where people are “being cured with a single pill.” As the soldier puts it, that is, with a single shot to the back of the head. The pit is full of bodies, some of them still moving. There are 6 people ahead of you in the line. Your granddaughter looks up at you and asks you a question. What is the question?”

Wow. I don’t think I will escape this book anytime soon.

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