Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel

Don't be fooled by these talking animals – the author of 'Life of Pi' is up to some cruel literary tricks

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. "Misconceived and offensive", "lifeless" and written with "self-preening admiration" are but some of the insults hurled at this new novel by the international press.

Martel was always going to struggle to equal the success of Life of Pi, his fabulist novel from 2001 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. Beatrice and Virgil certainly has ambition – perhaps to justify the $3m advance Martel is said to have received for it – in its mission to write about how one writes about the Holocaust. 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. In this state of suspension, Henry receives one notable package in which is enclosed a short story by Flaubert about a medieval saint's youthful lust for killing animals, some pages from a play – a beautiful Beckettian scene in which a donkey asks a howler monkey to describe a pear to her – and a note asking for help.

Henry's interest is piqued and he sets off to find the sender, who turns out to be an aged taxidermist working in a shop full of stuffed carcasses – wolves, fish, tigers – a Noah's Ark preserved in chemicals. "How's business?" asks Henry. "It's dying," comes the reply.

Here, in the territory of animals, fabulism and nihilism, Martel gets into his stride. Among the menagerie is a howler monkey sitting atop a donkey, about whom the taxidermist has written the play. The donkey, Beatrice, steady and innocent, and the insomniac monkey, Virgil, are starving in a country called The Shirt, trying to piece together their destroyed pasts. It's somewhere between Beckett and Ionesco, and, as in Life of Pi, Martel plays the virtuoso with different genres.

Is this all sounding far-fetched? Part of the joy of Life of Pi was quite how easily one drifted along in the boat with the boy and the tiger, and believed in it. In Beatrice and Virgil, at times the artifice clunks and the faux naïveté seems glib. But, with its textures of genre and allegory, there also comes an explosion of ideas that keep the pages turning.

So far, so innocent, but Beatrice and Virgil takes a dark turn when Henry belatedly realises that Beatrice and Virgil are ciphers for the victims of the Holocaust, and the taxidermist their persecutor. By now, it is also too late for the reader to object to being forced to identify with such a villain, and his use of the tragedy of the Holocaust for the creation of art. Martel knows, too, that this refers to himself.

Where Life of Pi was about belief, in stories and God, Beatrice and Virgil is about crushing belief. In the artifice, in the author, in our emotional response to writing, the novel seeks to destroy as much as it creates.

While there is a case to argue that the substitution of animals for Jews is offensive, and that Martel may not have reached the high watermark of Life of Pi in literary style, this does a disservice to a wild, provocative novel.

The final chapter is written by Henry. It comprises 12 ethical conundrums, again not located specifically in the Holocaust, though the parallels are evident. "Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter's head?" If you were lulled by the tale of the animals, this is the final sucker punch, where one can no longer indulge in the artifice of fiction.

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