NPR Choice pageIt, 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.
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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.
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
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.
If 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. The story centres on Henry L'Hote, clearly based on Martel himself, who fails to persuade his publishers to accept his new book, half-essay, half-fiction, about the Holocaust. Defeated, he ditches his old life and moves to a nameless European-esque city, where he drifts, takes up the clarinet, and replies to letters from fans of his previous literary hit.
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Yann Martel writes a great pear. A mouth watering pear. In his hands, the pear is transformed into something else, something beautiful, something that can barely be contained on the page. In his hands, the humble pear is transformed into art. It is a concept novel that teeters on the edge of pretension but never quite plunges in. It is a novel out of time, perhaps; one which, when measured against the Booker prize-winning The Life of Pi , will instantly be judged to be found wanting. In time, the value of this humble pear will rise and rise.
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. The nervousness, at least, is understandable. What author wouldn't be nervous offering up a fable about the Holocaust featuring a talking donkey and monkey? Just about every element in that description, from fable to monkey, is likely to offend someone, and you can't blame Martel, having embarked on such a project, for worrying out loud about it, or hedging it with layers of pre-emptive self-defence. A kind of serial distancing of author from content seems to have determined the basic structure: frames within frames within frames. The donkey and monkey are figures in a play within the novel. The play, about animals fleeing unspeakable horrors, is presented as the work of one of the book's characters, an elderly taxidermist with a mysterious past connected, in some way, to the Holocaust.