Yann Martel: Beatrice and Virgil – First thoughts

I am really struggling with this book – normally I pick up a book and begin reading. The plot will unfold and by the third chapter I will have the map of the unknown country described by the author in my head. But here it is a different story. I was struggling so much that I have had to resort to reading reviews etc. just to be able to grasp what this book is about.

The book is an attempt to show how the holocaust can be depicted in art – or perhaps how it should be depicted in various forms of art.

Who are Beatrice and Virgil? These are the guides in Dante’s Divine Comedy. But here they are a donkey and a howler monkey, occupying the space between not alive and not dead.

The more reviews I read, the more confused I become. The main protagonist is an author called Henry who wrote an absurdly successful book and now is struggling to launch another magnum opus. And out of the blue, another Henry, this one a taxidermist, contacts Henry about a play he is trying to write. The characters are in fact stuffed animals in the taxidermist’s shop and the play is called “The 20th Century Shirt”. And the big question to be answered “How are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it is over”? And so the allusions to the holocaust and representations in art.

This is a book that has to be read carefully and I am proceeding slowly. My problem is that this is a digital library book and expires in 3 days. Perhaps I will renew it.

Yann Martel: Beatrice and Virgil part 2

I finished the book. It is quite short and very surreal. What is it about?

It is about Henry, an author with writer’s block who meets a taxidermist who is writing a play about two animals. The taxidermist is stuck and he approaches Henry for help. Another layer. The play is a description of the Holocaust, which is in turn an allegory for the destruction of the animal world by human beings. The holocaust as an allegory for something else?

The end of the book is disturbing and now I wish that I had just abandoned the work after I had just read 30 or 40 pages. There are some books which live with you for the rest of your life. This is one such work.

There is another twist. The story is not just about the depiction about the holocaust in art. It is also about the toxicity of human guilt. The taxidermist is a former Nazi. Was he also involved in the brutality of the holocaust? Did he also torture and brutalise? And now how does he live with himself? By using art to explain away his part in the brutality of the Nazi regime. By using art to deflect the focus, to say that the real evil that mankind has done is not the extermination of 6 million people, but rather the enslavement and destruction of the animal kingdom. The taxidermist’s conscience is assuaged. Or is it?

The Life of Pi has been made into a charming film suitable for family entertainment. This book, if it were ever to make the silver screen would be a horror movie.