Book Review: Beatrice and Virgil

As excited as I was to read Yann Martel's newest novel, Beatrice and Virgil, I was equally scared. Life of Pi is still burning in my memory and I was simultaneously afraid and excited by the thought that this new title would be equally memorable.

And it was. I knew that the subject matter for this book was going to be the Holocaust. But, I am teaching a course on the Holocaust next fall and want to read as much material as possible to help shape my curriculum. Though I don't know that I could include this entire text, I do think that the text raises a few pretty interesting questions. The first question I thought of is: What is the place of fiction in Holocaust literature? The answer to this question is not easy. As I read Beatrice and Virgil, I think that I went back and forth about how I would lead this discussion with teenagers. Of course, preserving memory and fact and historical events is of the utmost importance when thinking about a history as gruesome as the Holocaust, but I can't help but wonder whether or not the discussion of this historical place in time will fade the further we move away from the 1940's.

I think that Beatrice and Virgil is a bit of a self-conscious exploration of this fact versus fiction debate on the part of the author. The main character, Henry, is a writer who is struggling to write and and promote an idea for a Holocaust fiction. He meets rejection along the way and abandons his project. One day, he is sent a cryptic message and highlighted short story from a local man. When Henry seeks out this man, he finds an odd old man, whose profession is taxidermy.

As their awkward relationship progresses, Henry is sucked into this man's allegorical story of a donkey named Beatrice and and howler monkey named Virgil. It quickly becomes clear that these characters are representative of those who suffered in the Holocaust. Henry proceeds in meeting with this strange man for a number of months, not understanding that this man may not be entirely able to recover from his past experiences.

I do not want to spoil this reading experience for any of you by divulging too much information here. Henry is a sympathetic character for me, and I feel like there's a lot of Martel in this novel. I don't know whether this is true or not, but I thoroughly enjoyed thinking so.