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"Beatrice and Virgil," the follow-up to Yann Martel's wildly popular and largely charming novel "Life of Pi," was published about a month ago -- to wide and mostly negative reviews. Because this review is meant to coincide with Martel's appearance in the Twin Cities this week, I'm able to consider both the book itself and the response, which has struck me as strangely harsh.
"Life of Pi," which had a quirky, fairy-tale quality, told the story of a young boy, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, sailing the vast sea on a life raft with zoo creatures quickly devoured by the boy's ultimate companion, a tiger named Richard Parker. "Beatrice and Virgil" involves a writer whose attempt to follow his first bestseller about wild animals is reduced to a bad dream by a panel of editors, historians, publishers and marketing personnel.
The proposed book is a "flip" book -- read one way, a story about the Holocaust; read the other way, an essay about the difficulty of writing about the Holocaust. Undone, the character, Henry, moves with his wife to a "great city," takes a job as a waiter at a cafe, takes clarinet lessons and participates in a theater group.
The bulk of the story concerns Henry's odd relationship with someone who contacts him as a writer needing "help." This someone turns out to be a strange old taxidermist whose play, featuring a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil, is an allegory about the Holocaust -- and a key to the identity of the taxidermist, as Henry discovers too late.
The book, as they used to say in lit crit classes, may be "overdetermined." There's the metafictional connection to Martel's own career, as it figures in Henry's story. There's the tale-within-a-tale of the taxidermist's play, as it connects with Henry's failed proposal. There's the Dante reference, with the main characters of the taxidermist's play alluding to Dante's two guides (Virgil and Beatrice) through the hell, purgatory and paradise of "The Divine Comedy." And there's the play itself, which alludes perhaps too egregiously to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" (which might not be an issue if the character, supposedly so literature-savvy, noted the clear parallels).
It is these coincidences, along with the occasional sloppy or slangy language ("what a control freak," "managed to hold it together," etc.), that seem to have earned reviewers' ire; more damning, however, is the Holocaust connection. How dare Martel compare the extinction of animals, as characterized in a lame play by a taxidermist, to the extermination of 6 million Jews? But this is not, as far as I can tell, what the author is doing. He has offered, through the imagined, distorted storytelling of an awful old Nazi, a truly horrific and moving picture of wholesale slaughter; it can only be described, not explained.
The book, which starts out self-reflexive and odd, even goofy, will end up disturbing for anyone who has a conscience. It is not "Life of Pi," and that's as it should be.
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis. She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.