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

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches