Saturday, July 31, 2010

Co-review: Beatrice and Virgil

It has been seven years since Yann Martel's unforgettable first novel was published. (And if you haven't read Life of Pi, stop what you're doing right now and request it from your local library.)  His second novel, Beatrice and Virgil, is much shorter in length and thinner in plot and character development.  Any reader of Life of Pi will be on the lookout for allegory and symbolism, and Martel recognizes that and addresses his central theme right up front, basically giving the reader a little essay about both the limitations and necessity of depicting the Holocaust through fiction.

So with a little heads up from the author about what to expect, we are equipped to forge ahead.  But of course Martel doesn't keep it quite that simple.  The story itself is brief and uncomplicated, but its layers of meaning offer plenty of fodder for any book group discussion.  It begins with an air of autobiography surrounding the main character.  Henry is an author who experienced explosive success with his first published novel, an allegorical work featuring animals.  After five years of intense personal investment, Henry finishes his next work that is both a fictional and non-fictional treatment of the Holocaust.  It is rejected for publication so forcefully that it sends Henry into such a funk that he decides to give up writing.

Looking for a change of scenery, he and his wife move to a foreign city and he enjoys a measure of anonymity in pursuing varied interests.  When he receives an unusual package from a reader in the same city, containing an unfamiliar yet intriguing short story by Gustave Flaubert, a scene from a play, and a plea for help, Henry decides to investigate further.  The sender turns out to be an old taxidermist who is writing a play featuring Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and monkey long preserved in his shop.  As Henry gets increasingly involved in the story of Beatrice and Virgil, he is increasingly frustrated at the taxidermist's either refusal or inability to connect with him on a human level.  But he continues to return as he realizes that there is more to Beatrice and Virgil's story than he first suspects.  What he discovers leads him back to his own attempts to grapple with the Holocaust in his fiction, and with a surprising conclusion, changes his life forever.

As with other co-reviews, be aware that we may give more away than you want to know if you haven't read it.

Caren: I had serious mixed feelings about reading Beatrice and Virgil. I enjoyed Life of Pi so much that I was excited to see what Yann Martel would come up with for his second novel, but I was also worried that after such high expectations I couldn't help but be disappointed.  And I wasn't sure I wanted to read something with the intensity of Life of Pi and just be let down.  Fortunately, some of those fears were complete non-issues.  First, Beatrice and Virgil is pretty short.  No more than a couple hundred pages, so even if you don't like it you don't have to invest huge amounts of time.

Second, it has what my marketing husband would call a "low barrier to entry."  It was very easy to begin a harmless story about a successful writer facing rejection, to get involved without having to invest very much.  By the time it started turning more dark and serious, it was too late.  I had to know what Martel had up his sleeve, even though I knew it had to do with the Holocaust and wouldn't be pleasant.  But I think that was part of what made it so powerful.  When the violence comes at the end -- the violence in the play and the violence against Henry -- it was all the more intense because it was such a contrast to the safe narrative we'd enjoyed all along.

Jenny:  I had a hard time getting into the story.  The blurb in the front inside cover gave almost no hints about the story so I didn't know what to expect.  All the blathering on about getting his flip book about the Holocaust published seemed autobiographical, like you said, and I couldn't really understand what this had to do with a donkey and a monkey.  I kept reminding myself that Life of Pi had all the information about zoos at the beginning and how that tied into that story, so I should just keep going.  I'm dense, but I didn't catch on that the part about the Holocaust in the beginning tied into the play that the taxidermist wrote until it was getting creepy.  By the time I realized what the taxidermist was writing, it was like watching a car accident take place.  You know it's going to be horrific and terrifying but you can't look away.  I couldn't look away and now it's seared in my mind.

I seriously misjudged this story, which is just stupid.  I mean, Life of Pi is not just a story about a boy and a tiger stranded on a boat, but for some reason I thought this was a story about a monkey and a donkey.  I thought that the taxidermist was disturbing with a capital D, but didn't realize that he was telling his own story through the play.  I mean, Beatrice and Virgil don't really talk about anything.  Half of what they did talk about I didn't understand.  Maybe a second reading will help me see all the clues that Martel gives, but I don't know if I want to read it again.

That sounds like I didn't like it, but I did.  It was just kinda horrible reading.  But really, really amazing horrible reading.  After I finished the book, I was paralyzed on my bed.  I couldn't hardly breathe from the shock of the ending.  And then I spent the rest of the day thinking about the Holocaust and thinking about how I never think about the Holocaust.

Caren: I can see how the beginning would put you off.  There is a lot of philosophizing about art -- particularly fiction -- and not very much advancing the plot.  And I did the same thing at the end.  I was just going to read a little more before bed one night, but then things rapidly grew intense and I had to stay up late and finish it.  Then I had a hard time unwinding for sleep because I just wanted to talk to someone about it!

I felt like I didn't understand a lot of details about the play too.  Like, what was the deal with the setting being a shirt?  And the sewing kit?  I felt like I basically got the overall point about stuff (the Holocaust victims who don't have a voice finding other ways to express the Horrors they suffered), but that I missed some of the deeper levels of meaning by not understanding everything.  What was the significance of both the writer and the taxidermist having the same first name?  And why does the taxidermist stab Henry at the end?  Was it because he felt like he was being denied redemption when Henry wouldn't take his play?  Was it because -- like St. Julian -- he longed for violence and this was an easy outlet?

Jenny:  I am so glad you didn't understand details of the play.  I felt stupid because it seemed like symbolism I should be getting, but I just didn't.  Does it seem really obvious to other people besides Martel?  I'd love to know that.

When I realized who the taxidermist was and what he had done, I felt overwhelmed with disgust, like Henry.  Then, when he stabbed Henry, I wondered why he bothered to seek redemption if his plan was to kill Henry if he didn't like his play.  Then again, maybe he didn't have that plan, it was just a reaction to Henry's loathing.  This is a guy accustomed to violence, after all.  He's pretty handy with a knife due to his choice of profession and his past.  Maybe his calm, stony exterior was masking rage and violence.  Super creepy any way you look at it.

So here I finish the story and then Martel adds the Games for Gustav at the end.  I don't even know what to write about that.  I'm sitting here at the computer, trying to find words and failing.  What keeps coming back to me is that my generation and future generations must be reminded of the Holocaust because it isn't part of our personal history.  Like, 9/11 won't mean much to my kids who didn't watch the planes crash into the towers on television.  That's not a perfect comparison, but it's the closest thing I can think of.  The Holocaust will mean even less to my children who will be nearly a century removed from it by the time they are adults.  This is a little of what the sewing kit means to me, that we need to write what happened into ourselves so we don't forget.

Caren: I agree.  I like what you said earlier about how you were left "thinking about the Holocaust and thinking about how I never think about the Holocaust."  How do you avoid relegating the Holocaust to just a footnote in history?  How do you depict it in a way that makes it fresh and impressionable, without stripping it of meaning with overuse?  I think Martel did just that.  And for me, Games for Gustav was the most powerful part.  A handful of sentences and questions.  That's it.  But so vivid that I felt almost a physical recoil against trying to make my mind accept them.  I know that was only the briefest glimpse into the horrors that went on for millions of victims, but it was strong enough that I felt like any more and I would have started shutting it out instead of being open to it like I was.

I have a hard time talking about the book in an objective way, because those final pages evoked such a strong emotional response.  I can't separate that response no matter how hard I try.  I would be willing to read it again, and would be interested to see what more I could get out of it.  (Which is interesting since I can only handle one reading of other novels which portray horrible things, like The Kite Runner).  But with this one being so simple and allegorical for most of the story, I think I could handle a second reading.  I guess some readers and reviewers have hated it, but I feel like it is well worth reading and especially discussing.

Jenny:  Absolutely.  I think I need to wait about a year and then read it again to see if I can understand it better knowing from the start how it will end.  But I need to give it some time because it was emotionally wrenching.  I thought I knew what people in concentration camps went through and then I read Games for Gustav.  That's when I realized that I have no idea of their suffering.  No idea.  It felt like a punch in the gut.

Reviewers have hated it?  How interesting that Henry's editors and publishers hated his fictional work on the Holocaust.  What foresight.

Caren: Pretty ironic, huh? That's what I've heard, but I haven't looked into it further.  One complaint I've heard is that using animals somehow trivialized the Jews' suffering and some people were offended by it.  But I think those people totally missed the point.  I think the Flaubert story was a great explanation for the human/animal connection, and how redemption did (or didn't, in my opinion) play into it.

So many aspects of this story deserve to be fleshed out more fully.  This is definitely one I'll be thinking about for a while.

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