Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil

by Yann Martel

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel.

This was a very tough book in a lot of ways. First of all, those who loved Life of Pi went in with certain expectations, and I’m not sure they were met. If you don’t know what the book is about — and I didn’t — the dawning realization comes like a slow motion punch. This is a novel full of tricks — plays within plays, word games, and again, you keep asking why? What’s going on? The main character, Henry the novelist, meets a taxidermist, also named Henry. The author in the book is obsessed with his novel, unpublished, about the Holocaust. The real book is, and I’m not giving anything away, an obsessive attempt to explain, to retell, to turn into a story — the Holocaust. The play within the book features the titular characters: a sweet donkey and her somewhat more sharp tongued ape companion. Martell’s skill, never in question, makes us fall in love with these charming creatures even as we understand there is something terrible coming. Just how terrible, I frankly wasn’t prepared for.

Martell, in writing this book, asks us to look at the Holocaust through the prism of fiction, because art outlasts history. The tricks, the word games, the experimental nature of this book are all put into the service of giving the unspeakable a voice — even if there is no explanation, even if the words are wrong, even if its incomprehensible, something must be said, so we don’t forget.Ê I honestly don’t know if we’re in danger of forgetting. I’m not sure I need this event to be framed in the context of art. Martell is an enormously skilled writer; in fact, a lesser talent wouldn’t have disturbed me so profoundly. I was obviously left with a lot of questions about what I had read, about the limits of art, about memory, and how the person telling the story informs the story that’s finally told.


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