I suppose it would be dishonest not to begin this review with a disclaimer: I loved Life of Pi. I can’t think of another book that I was as awestruck with as that little gem. It made me laugh, probably cry and most of all – wonder. I haven’t been thrilled with Martel’s other offerings. In fact I haven’t finished the Helsinki one, and I couldn’t bring myself to even start Self. But Beatrice and Virgil looked good to me. Martel returns to his money maker: animals. So a story about ‘the journey of a donkey and a howler monkey’ promised something.
The premise for the story is fairly simple, an author, has moved to a city with his pregnant wife. Living off the avails of his original super-seller, Henry has proposed a new novel/essay flipbook combination with the Holocaust as its premise, to his publishers. In a scene that seems realistic, the question is, “What is your book about?”
Henry’s creativity is being used in other ways than writing, he’s playing the clarinet, and acting in a local drama club, when a mysterious letter comes asking for help.The letter comes with a selection from a play, in which two characters, Beatrice and Virgil, are discussing a pear. Henry is interested, and the directions lead him to an amazing taxidermist’s shop, where the owner, an older gentleman also named Henry, is working on animals daily, and a play all his life.
Throughout the course of the story, young Henry begins to pick up clues as to what the older Henry is really writing about. The surprisingly quick and violent climax to the story is confusing, and doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story.
So what is this book about? Is this a memoir? Martel as Henry, trying to fend off writer’s block, attacking the Holocaust and using it as Metaphor? Martel uses an interesting writing style, fairly sparse writing, with detail given to the taxidermist’s shop, the description of the animals, the explanation of horrors that have been witnessed. It’s certainly more than just a writer’s excercise at defeating writer’s block (I hope).
In the end, Martel does through Henry what Henry started at the beginning, presenting (or is that representing) the Holocaust in ways we haven’t thought about it before. Martel’s been accused of de-humanizing the Holocaust by comparing it to the fate of animals, but I’d say, isn’t that the point? I do have to be honest, though, I don’t know if I’m confident I know what the book is about either. But hey, maybe that’s just the realization I’m supposed to come to.