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.

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf