12 May 2010

Beatrice and Virgil

I have a treat for you guys today! No, I am not handing out cookies. Well, I am. Here, have some e-cookies. But that is not the main treat. You see . . . I usually review books that are at least a few years (if not a few decades or centuries) old. Today marks the first time in the nearly ten months I have had this blog that I review a book that has only been out for a month--Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil. I am a huge fan of Martel's Life of Pi, so I was totally psyched for this book! As soon as it was released, I rushed to the library I work at and snatched the first copy. Muahahaha It was mine! All mine! *cough*

For those of who you also love Life of Pi and are curious about Martel's latest book, you're probably wondering: Is Beatrice and Virgil like Life of Pi? Well, that depends upon your definition of "like Life of Pi." This book shares the same effortless prose and quirky humor, but the similarities end there. Life of Pi is much more fantastical than this novel, yet Beatrice and Virgil is much weirder. Life of Pi is odd, but Beatrice and Virgil is a very postmodern, literary work that is rich in symbolism and whether or not you like this book will hinge heavily upon your tolerance for postmodern literature.

I am one of those geeks who adores postmodernism and literary fiction, so I really enjoyed this novel, which relates the tale of Henry--who, like the writer in Life of Pi, is a thinly veiled version of Martel himself--as he struggles to find success in the publishing world after writing a bestseller. Frustrated when his imaginative work on the Holocaust is rejected for being too bizarre and inaccessible, he goes into a self-imposed exile in an unidentified city, taking music lessons and acting in community theater yet militantly refusing to write. One day Henry gets some fan mail from a local man who has enclosed an excerpt from his own work--a play starring a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. (If you know these two are named after Dante's guides in The Divine Comedy, you are my new nerdy best friend.) Henry meets the writer--a gruff, elderly taxidermist who is also named Henry--and the two strike up a somewhat dysfunctional collaboration on the play. And then Henry--the writer Henry--starts to wonder just exactly what he's gotten himself into . . .

I found Henry, the writer protagonist, likeable as a main character and Beatrice and Virgil, the fictional animals in the taxidermist's play, become intriguing characters in their own right. The plot starts off as a somewhat meandering tale of writer's block--Oh, how I can relate!--that has lots of simplistic charm and an intriguing atmosphere but not a lot of certifiable action. That's fine with me, because I enjoy Martel's style and the world he crafts; however, if you're expecting an action-packed plot, you'll be sorely disappointed. Not to say the story is boring. The interactions between the personable Henry and the emotionally distant and occasionally bizarre taxidermist are entertaining and easy to relate to. (Think of all the times you have tried your best to work with someone you could never, ever understand. Now you know how Henry feels.) The excerpts from the play itself--a witty, absurdist play highly reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's work--are fascinating in and of themselves.

Though I enjoyed this novel very much, I must warn you: The last few pages of the novel take a disturbing and surprising turn that both rattled and delighted me. I love surprises and this one was a genuine shocker, seeing how the rest of the novel lulled me into a false sense of security and then slapped me upside the head with said false sense of security. I have seen other people ranting on the internet that the ending was gratuitously violent and unfair. I think that's being naive--I mean, Beatrice and Virgil is an allegorical novel about the Holocaust, so it's only natural that it is going to be somewhat disturbing. That being said, definitely do not read this book if you're turned off by violent content. The whole book itself is not violent, but the ending will upset you.

This novel is definitely not for everyone, but I enjoyed it very much. (I just finished it this afternoon and am still trying to process it, but I think I actually like this book even more than Life of Pi, which is saying something.) I can't guarantee that you will like this book if you liked Life of Pi, but I think this is a book that those who enjoy postmodernist and/or literary fiction will relish. On its own merits, Beatrice and Virgil is a deceptively simple, engaging, and thought-provoking meditation on the nature of evil, art, personal responsibility, and guilt. I would definitely love to hear what you guys think if you read this, even if you want to kill me for recommending it. (I will defend myself with a very thick collection of encyclopedias if you want to book duel me. :P)

Next Week: Not sure. Maybe Cormac McCarthy. Maybe John Garder's Grendel. Maybe something else. We shall see! :)


  1. YAYYYY YOU READ IT YOU READ IT YOU READ IT! And you liked it! Hurrah! Must pick this one up soon. :D Hopefully before it comes out in paperback.

  2. Hehe I think you'll like this one, Scott. Definitely tell me what you think of it, though, because it is pretty trippy. :P

  3. I must try to get my hands on a copy of this. Life of Pi was great, so I should enjoy this.

    Also, yay! E-cookies!

  4. Hope you enjoyed the e-cookies, Chairman! :D

    Yeah, I think this one has enough similarities to Life of Pi to appeal to many of the fans. But it did surprise me how much it is its own book. Tell me what you think when you read it! I'd love to hear your opinion. :)

  5. Sound interesting, I think Life of Pi might be one I have to get my hands on. Beatrice and Virgil sounds intriguing as well, but thanks for the warning about the ending, whatever it is. :D
    By the way, I came across your FAQ today, and it was absolutely hilarious. xD
    *munches e-cookies* Yum, thanks!

  6. Ooooh, Feathery, I think you'd love Life of Pi. It's a great, quirky book that is so well-written. Here's the link to my review from last year if you're interested: http://zellakate.blogspot.com/2009/10/life-of-pi.html

    Hehe Thank you! I am glad you liked the Q&A. I absolutely and most certainly did not interview myself for that. (No! Honestly! I didn't!) *cough* ;)

    Here, have some more cookies. :D

  7. I just read your blog on Life of Pi, and it is definitely a must-read. I need something to break the cycle of books with predictable plots, and Pi's religious views sound, from what you said, interestingly similar to mine. *puts near top of growing reading list*

    By the way, thanks for recommending 'Stairway to Heaven' to Kevin on her blog the other day, I now love that song and it is currently stuck in my head. :D

  8. Oh, cool! Definitely let me know what you think of Life of Pi. It's an amazing book--one of my favorites.

    You're welcome! I adore Led Zeppelin and that's probably my favorite of their songs. Now that you mentioned it to me, I have that song in my head right now. *sings along* :)

  9. Yay, and e-sing-along! ♫ *...If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now...*♫

    Oh, and sorry for posting so many comments unrelated to your blog, if you mind that sort of thing. :3 I have a nasty habit of doing that, I just can't stop talking. :D

  10. *e-sings* ♫ " . . . It's just a spring clean
    For the May queen. Yes, there are two paths you can go by . . . " ♫

    No, I love comments! Comment away, my friend! And I am the world's worst to do the exact same thing. :D

  11. Okay, good to know! And don't hesitate to comment on my blog either, comments are like cookies, or my grandma's pasta- they make me happy and satisfied. :D

  12. Oooh, a perfect analogy! Comments make me happy, too. In fact, I have noticed over the past month I have gotten more comments after a small decrease in the number of comments the month before that, so I am quite happy and satisfied!

    Does your grandma make homemade pasta? I love pasta! It makes me happy. And quite full. :P

  13. My grandma makes an interesting sort of baked pasta that she invented herself. She's an amazing cook, mostly cooks Lebanese food. :D And pasta is my absolute favorite food! I would eat it every day if I could. My family has taken to forcing me to order something other than pasta when we eat out, saying something about a "balanced diet."

    I noticed a reduction in comments as well, but hopefully it keeps going back up again, maybe everyone's just been busy. :D

  14. *mouth waters*

    Oooh, I bet that is delicious! Middle Eastern food is yummy! :D

    Pasta is one of my favorite things to eat, too! I don't have any Italian blood in me--according to family geneology--but I am not so sure, taking my love for pasta into consideration. :D

    Good point! I bet it's school related stuff. For awhile there, I was so busy that I was not checking my dashboard for a couple of days then trying to frantically make up for it when I did check it. I think everyone's been in the same boat. Hopefully, that boat is sinking and we can all jump on the fun-time boat, in which free time is abundant. :D

  15. Oh yes, it's incredibly delicious! *can smell it now*

    My school related workload is about to come to a peak soon, as in homeschooling you must have all your work in by a certain date, which is looming nearer. Although I'm not a class A procrastinator, it's hard to escape it sometimes. :D But as soon as the end of June comes, I shall be free as a bird, and graduated! Yay!

  16. Good luck with all of your deadlines! I can only imagine how difficult that is! I am like you, in that I am not a major procrastinator, but toward the end I do procrastinate . . . a lot. (I realize that really makes no sense because I am nearly done, but that's how my crazy mind operates.)

    Hurray for freedom and graduation! Congrats to you for graduating! :)

  17. I tend to procrastinate towards the end too. It makes absolute perfect sense.

    *says bye in this discussion as well* :D

  18. This sounds excellent! I've never read Life of Pi, and I've heard mixed reviews about it, but it's one I intend to read so I'll try and get to this one to.

    Those postmodern/dystopian/odd books are usually ones I really like, so this looks really interesting.

    I read another review of Beatirice & Virgil, but they must have found it extremely odd because after I read it my impression was of something quite crazy, so I'm more inclined to read it after this. And surprise endings are a sort of love/hate thing: love the surpise but sometimes hate something happening to my favorite characters.

    (btw, I've read many of the books as you've reviewed them, so I think you get extra literary nerd points for that :D)

    I thought Jimi Hendrix sang 'Stairway to Heaven' first?!
    *goes to Google*

  19. Feathers: I think the brain operates on a different plane when dealing with the end of the semester. It is its own transparallel universe. :D

    Rebel: I think you'll like both this and Life of Pi. They're both definitely unique and possibly a bit too quirky for some, but they are very well-written. Yay for a fellow dystopian/postmodern/odd book lover! We must stick together. :P That's so cool that you've read along! I would love to hear your take on the books. I know you'll have some great insight and observations. :) (I think this all serves as further proof that we all have nerdy ESP, which Feathers and I were discussing on her blog. This is scientific evidence!)

    I am almost positive that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wrote "Stairway to Heaven", but I could be wrong. Hendrix is equally amazing. :D

  20. You must be right Zella, no wonder our impressions of time are so distorted so close to the end of the school year!

    For the Saturstory this week, which animal would you like to be your pet? The pets are a rather significant part of the plot, and I just wasn't sure which animal you'd like best.

    Goodness is it this late already? this is going to be a Sundaystory again. :3 Oops.

  21. Hmm . . . I can't make up my mind, so I'll give you three options and you can use whichever fits your story best: a Chihuahua, a guinea pig, or a boll weevil. (I don't really like boll weevils, but I like the word.) :D I would prefer to be a Chihuahua or guinea pig, either is fine, but if you need a bug, a boll weevil works. :D

    I can't wait to see what you do with this. ^^

  22. I'll go with Chihuahau, no one has a pet that can make highly pitched yaps yet. :)
    As much as I like the word, I don't think boll weevils would fit the plot too well. xD

  23. Yay! I love Chihuahuas! :D Thank you!

    This also proves that you are a kind person. If you had been mean, you would have turned me into a boll weevil. (Either that or if you were doing a version of Kafka's The Metamorphosis. :P) *gives Feathers e-cookies for being nice* :)

  24. Haha well I don't think anyone is going to be turning into their animals, I think it's going to be sort of like pets, but very different-but I'm not sure yet.

    Wow, that just sent me into thinking of a 'The Metamorphosis' like story, only set in the deep south during the great depression (which was when boll weevils hurt the southern farming industry) with a boll weevil instead of a beetle. :o That was one strange thought.

  25. Oh, okay! I think I was in an insomnia-induced stupor and misread that. :P

    Hehe I like the sounds of your version of The Metamorphosis. I would so read that! *is a Kafka nerd* :D