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! :)