Saturday, May 26, 2012

beatrice and virgil: review

When I read Yann Martel's second novel, Life of Pi, I was completely consumed by the magic of the fable. I got to the end, turned it over, and started again. I studied sections - trying to learn the secret to the wonder of it. There's always a risk when a story has that much power in reading something else by the author - can they possibly satisfy the now impossibly high expectations? 

The next work I read of Yann Martel's was his short story collection The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccomatios was significantly different, and did not disappoint. Of course, being a short-story collection freed that work from some of the pressures of comparison - different genre, different structure, different reader needs. 

It's hard though, for someone who so thoroughly consumed Life of Pi not to resurrect the strong comparisons when reading Martel's third novel, Beatrice and Virgil, particularly because once again Martel uses the distance between humans and animals to make his point. It's a completely different reading experience though. As the author himself says, 
There are animals in this story, as there were in Life of Pi. But it’s a very different story this time. In Life of Pi, you looked out at the animals and perhaps you forgot about yourself. In Beatrice and Virgil, I hope it’s the opposite: I hope your encounter with a donkey and a monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, besides other animals, will bring you closer to your humanity.
Beatrice and Virgil is not perfect, although it seemed throughout that even the imperfections were a part of the story - the bits that lagged and lumbered were, in the plot structure, written by a socially awkward (to be hypobolic) and struggling writer who seeks the protagonist's help. The plot is tight, except where it isn't for the sake of making a point. So there were weaknesses, but they are nothing compared to the unending string of absolutely lyric perfection.
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Again, I found myself reading and re-reading certain passages just to enjoy the feeling of the images and the sounds of the words. I danced with the phrases "this was a room full of adjectives; like a Victorian novel." Martel's perfect phrases are like rolling a hard candy with your tongue or whispering your lover's name - you just want it to keep going it feels so perfect in  your mouth.

The two main human characters are interesting, if incompletely drawn ... for the sake of the story. What really struck me though was Martel's masterful discussion of the Holocaust, a subject I always enjoy learning about, in a way that was never really overtly about the Holocaust. 

For as long as he writes, I will read Yann Martel. He has an uncanny power with words and story that moves and frustrates me. It frustrates me only because I see the gap between the deep vast waters he swims in, and the wading pool in which I splash.


  1. Great review! You articulated my unformed thoughts far better than I could have. I really enjoyed both Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil, and found them to be charming and distinct. Thanks for sharing this today!

    1. Thanks, Renee. I read another review that said the weaknesses protagonist Henry points out in the play are the same weaknesses in the book - lack of action, not being 'about' anything ... I really enjoyed the variety of kinds of writing though. I think it was as much about writing as it was about the broader themes.


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