Available now from Spiegel & Grau (Random House)
Note: This review looks at BEATRICE AND VIRGIL holistically. If you object to knowing anything about the ending, please do not read this review. Simply take this statement with you: I devoured this book and I am thinking rather hard about it . . . perhaps too hard.
AVC: You said that your next book is almost finished. Do you have a sense of when we're going to see it?
YM: I would think, the fall of 2008. It's two things, the next one. It's a novel and an essay. The reason I did that was that as I was writing the novel, I had certain questions and approaches and things I wanted to discuss which didn't fit in the genre of the novel. They'll be published back-to-back, upside down, what the trade calls a flipbook. In other words, a book with two covers. And they'll have the same title: A 20th-Century Shirt. They share the same fundamental metaphor to do with the shirt and to do with the laundry, and they both have to do with the Holocaust.
-from an A.V. Club interview by Tasha Robinson
In his first novel since the wildly successful LIFE OF PI, Yann Martel decides to approach the Holocaust through a postmodern perspective. He blurs the line between fantasy and reality - and if the above quote is to be believed, he changed the position of that line sometime after November 6, 2007.
BEATRICE AND VIRGIL is told in the close third perspective, through the eyes of Henry, an author with an extremely successful first novel whose second novel was savaged by his editors. That second novel was a flipbook, a novel and an essay about the Holocaust. But that novel is not A 20th CENTURY SHIRT. A 20th CENTURY SHIRT is a play by a taxidermist, which Henry eventually rewrites and adapts into a memoir: BEATRICE AND VIRGIL.
Like LIFE OF PI, BEATRICE AND VIRGIL is a story about how we tell stories. The survivors of the Holocaust are dying, but the event cannot be forgot. The Jews, the Poles, the homosexuals, none of the victims can be forgotten. But how will the story be told by those of us who weren't there? We've grown up with a fairly standard Holocaust narrative. It is tragic and somber. As Martel points out, only a few storytellers like Art Spiegelman use fanciful flourishes. I am surprised that Martel did not mention the work of Günter Grass.
Grass's work is also postmodern. His magical realist novels tell of the horrors of the Nazi regime, focusing on the invasion of Poland and the changes within the city of Danzig. The exclusion of Grass soon fell to the back of my mind, only to be recalled when I reached the end. In 2006, Grass revealed that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. At the climax of BEATRICE AND VIRGIL, Henry realizes he's been wrong about the taxidermist's narrative of the Holocaust. The taxidermist was a Nazi. His point of view changed, Henry rejects the taxidermist's story. How can Grass be ignored?
There is more to BEATRICE AND VIRGIL's crabbed structure than just this bending of Martel and Henry's identities. The philosophical musings on how we talk about the Holocaust are offset by an allegory of the Holocaust: the play-within-the-novel, BEATRICE AND VIRGIL. It's an explicitly Beckett-like production. Two characters, talking to each other. They're hungry and lost. They're surrounded by a world of meaning but don't understand what it means. They're trying to decide how to talk about what has happened to the animals. That's the taxidermist's concern: the destruction of animals. It's an allegory that, as Henry discovers, can be valiant or monstrous.
Then there's also Henry's home life, with his pregnant wife, cat, and dog. There's his careers, as a thwarted writer, a waiter and an amateur actor. There's quite a bit happening in few pages. It is a lovely work, but I think some of Martel's own narrative is lost in the way he drives the mind off the page to think about story and the Holocaust and the way reality and fiction fit together.