Canongate, £15.99, 214pp. £14.39 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Beatrice and Virgil, By Yann Martel
Friday 04 June 2010
At first glance, it seems that Yann Martel has responded to the surprising global success of Life of Pi (Man Booker Prize, seven million copies sold) by writing a novel about failure. His novelist protagonist, Henry L'Hôte, has himself responded to writing a Pilike bestseller by setting himself a somewhat unclear creative challenge. He wants to write a book about the Holocaust that engages in "artful metaphor", presumably in response to Adorno's stipulation: "no poetry after Auschwitz." He argues that the Holocaust has, with the exception of a few books (Maus, Time's Arrow and See Under: Love), always been the domain of "a single school: historical realism."
In a recent essay, Martel added a couple more titles to his list of exceptions, which buckles his protagonist's argument. But even if the reader accepts it as true, L'Hôte complicates his ambitions by stating that, as well as treating the Holocaust in a poetic way, he wants to include an essay with the novel, publishing the whole as a "flip-book". This format, Martel has stated, was his original intention for Beatrice and Virgil.
L'Hôte's publishers (oddly) drag along a historian and a bookseller to their lunch with him to explain why the project is such a misguided idea. He gives in to their protests and goes back to amateur dramatics and answering his fan-mail. He is unusually kind to his readers. When one sends him photocopied pages from a Flaubert short story and a crap play about a donkey (Beatrice) and a monkey (Virgil), instead of throwing it away, he tracks down the author, a psychopathic taxidermist. The taxidermist fills in the background: the two animals are living on a person's shirt, and their banal conversation relates in some way to the Holocaust. L'Hôte decides this man is fascinating and agrees to help him with his play. His wife - the only sane person in the novel - points out that there's something odd about the man, but this isn't enough to stop L'Hôte spending all his time with him. In return, he gets a knife in the chest.
Beatrice and Virgil is such an artless, poorly constructed book that some critics have suggested it goes beyond the risible to become actively offensive. Martel and his protagonist may revel in the infantile, but there seems to be nothing actively malicious in his intentions. It is peculiarly similar to the work of the American novelist Tao Lin, who also enjoys writing about animals having meaningless conversations. But whereas Lin's fiction is a wonderfully deadpan joke, Martel's intentions seem serious.
Perhaps his structure is sneakier than it appears. His author is punished for wasting his time with an idiot, so it could be that to prove our worth as intelligent readers he wants us to do what his protagonist failed to do, and put Beatrice and Virgil in the bin.
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