Title: Beatrice and Virgil
Author: Yann Martel
Length of Audio: 6 hours 4 minutes
Narrator: Mark Bramhall
First Released: April 2010
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “Fate takes many forms…
When Henry receives a letter from an elderly taxidermist, it poses a puzzle that he cannot resist. As he is pulled further into the world of this strange and calculating man, Henry becomes increasingly involved with the lives of a donkey and a howler monkey — named Beatrice and Virgil — and the epic journey they undertake together.
With all the spirit and originality that made Life of Pi so beloved, this brilliant new novel takes the reader on a haunting odyssey. On the way Martel asks profound questions about life and art, truth and deception, responsibility and complicity.”
Comments and Critique: I’ve put off this review for several weeks because Beatrice and Virgil is so unlike anything I was expecting. After I finished listening to the story, I was stunned into silence, left waffling between wanting to yell WTF and yet proclaiming Martel’s brilliance as loudly as possible. After two weeks of thinking about it, therein lies the appeal of Beatrice and Virgil. It forces the reader to stop and think, refusing to let the reader slide without forming some opinion. Furthermore, regardless of the opinion, the novel and its messages linger, haunting the reader for weeks after finishing. It is a tale of responsibility unlike any other, one that continues to fill my thoughts as I struggle to discern my own meaning from it.
Beatrice and Virgil continues Mr. Martel’s fascinating use of animals as allegory. Of even more interest is the suspicion that Mr. Martel explores his own thoughts on literature and writing through the main character, Henry. At times, Henry’s thoughts and opinions sound extremely personal, and one cannot help but wonder if Henry is a touch autobiographical. For example, Mr. Martel specifically addresses the use of animals in dialogue between Henry and the taxidermist. While he states that animals have no set expectations for behavior which makes it easy to shape and mold them, I tend to disagree. Animals have their own built-in characteristics and set behaviors one expects, thereby minimizing the need for character development. We expect a tiger to act in a certain manner, and a donkey in another. The personification of these animals is going to come with the expectations that their human representatives will act in a similar vein. In addition, there is a fine line between animal behavior and human behavior. Humans can be very animalistic and vice versa. This makes it relatively easy to have one symbolize another. As we’ve come to expect in Mr. Martel’s novels, his own use of a donkey and a howler monkey in the taxidermist’s story leave the reader questioning the reasons and implications behind their usage.
Again, similar to Life of Pi, there are enough twists and turns to throw the most astute reader off the scent of the ending and the truth. While there are red flags that indicate the story is flowing in a direction not expected, it isn’t until the reader reaches this astounding ending where the red flags become apparent. No matter what, the sleight of hand works. The ending is so shocking in its abruptness that the reader is left gasping in astonishment at the truth. In fact, I would recommend not trying to deduce the climax of the novel but rather let Mr. Martel’s words carry you to the end. The ending is most valuable when it is a complete and utter surprise.
I remain astonished at the simple brilliancy of this novel. It confirms the idea that people are animals and can be driven to do extraordinary things when it is essential to do so. In fact, Beatrice and Virgil hint that humans are even more dangerous than animals because any cruelty is unexpected. Readers instinctually know that the animal kingdom is cruel in the fight to survive; we do not expect the same from humans. The psychology behind this discovery forces the reader to stop and consider the implications of what Mr. Martel is trying to state. It is a disturbing truth that should be acknowledged more than it ever is and is just one of the ideas that continues to haunt me.
As much as I enjoyed the novel itself, I am not certain that audio is the best format to “read” Beatrice and Virgil. The beginning is painfully slow and almost boring as Mr. Martel introduces the reader to Henry and sets the stage for future interactions with the mysterious taxidermist. More importantly, Beatrice and Virgil is a novel that deserves to be savored and re-read many times over. One cannot savor an audio novel, and wanting to find passages to listen to again and again has proven extremely difficult and frustrating. Yet, Mr. Bramhall’s portrayal of Henry, the taxidermist, Beatrice and Virgil is astounding. The reader is never left questioning who is speaking at a given time, and he does an excellent job of bringing all the characters to life. It is well worth listening to the story at least once to be able to get a feel for the characters and their voices, but having a hard copy on hand to re-read passages is essential.
Overall, I loved Beatrice and Virgil. It is a challenging read, to say the least; it does not deliver its message outright but forces the reader to wrestle with the ideas presented and truly think about the lessons being learned. Mr. Martel forces the reader to re-think the Holocaust and even what it means to be human.
This was a library find, for which I am forever grateful!
This book is not without its controversy. In fact, I would say that one either loves it or hates it. Very few people fall in the middle. What are your thoughts? Brilliant or utter posh? Would you be willing to give Mr. Martel another chance on future novels or has Beatrice and Virgil completely ruined his works for you?