Beatrice and Virgil – Yann Martel, Copyright 2010
Pages: 197 (not including Games for Gustav)
Source: Personal Collection – Purchased New
I remember all the hype around Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi and was not really caught up in it, even after it won the Man Booker Prize for 2002. I read the blurb and simply was not moved to read the book. Then came Beatrice and Virgil; AGAIN with all the hype. I read so many positive reviews and it seemed many people were tickled pink with it (though apparently not everyone) Once again, I read the blurb and was not impressed; I mean how interesting can a story about a taxidermist be right? Then one day while perusing the limited selection of English titles at the bookshop in Zagreb’s Avenue Mall and finding nothing that was on my wishlist, the bright cover of Beatrice and Virgil caught my eye. Facing a four hour drive back to Split with nothing to read, I plucked the book from the shelf and am happy to report that it was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking read.
Henry is a successful author who has hit a brick wall. He is dissatisfied with the utter lack of actual fiction that has been written about the Holocaust and feels that he can fill that void. Unfortunately his publishers aren’t very enthusiastic about his latest book. Amidst his frustration, Henry moves away to an anonymous city and starts a new life. It is here that he is led to the taxidermy shop where his life will be forever changed by an aspiring author who is struggling with a play (this is where Beatrice and Virgil come in) Though Henry doesn’t realize it at the time, the play is attempting to fill the same gap that he was so eager to fill himself, but for a very different reason.
The story itself is nothing particularly special. I think the reason for this was because I found that it climaxed and ended so abruptly. I had been so enjoying the story up until the end and was expecting so much more out of the conclusion. As I neared the end of the book, it seemed that the remaining pages were melting away only to leave in their midst a semi-surprise ending that was very unsatisfying. I got that same unfinished business kind of feeling that I might get if Yann Martel had simply ended by saying ‘and Henry woke up and it was all a dream’
I don’t want to dwell on the lack of satisfaction I received, because the real draw of this book goes far beyond the story itself. It was the deeper meaning behind the story and the obvious allegory for the holocaust contained within its pages that captured me. I found myself pondering Martel’s observation of the taboo around fictional works involving the Holocaust and wanting to investigate it more for myself. Making this connection with the subject matter, however, would, by itself, not be enough to draw me back to Martel’s novels. Luckily for Martel, his astounding descriptive abilities were what really struck a chord with me. More than seven pages of Beatrice and Virgil are dedicated to the description of a pear. While some other book bloggers have hailed this as the worst part of the novel as if it were a waste of space, I found it to be the most enthralling.
“Virgil: …Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or cinnamon?
Beatrice: I can.
Virgil: The smell of a ripe pear has the same effect on the mind as these aromatic spices. The mind is arrested, spellbound, and a thousand and one memories and associations are thrown up as the mind burrows deep to understand the allure of this beguiling smell…”
I hate pears with a passion, but by the time I had finished reading Martel’s description, my mouth was almost watering and I was feeling ashamed for ever having thought a bad thing about a pear. It was not only the description of the pear, but his ability to describe the beauty, or lack thereof, in any object or subject, including taxidermy. If nothing else, it will be this aspect of Martel’s writing that coaxes me into picking up another of his works.
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