Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well.
Yann Martel’s astonishing new novel begins with a successful writer attempting to publish his latest book, made up of a novel and an essay. Henry plans for it to be a “flip book” that the reader can start at either end, reading the novel or the essay first, because both pieces are equally concerned with representations of the Holocaust. His aim is to give the most horrifying of tragedies “a new choice of stories,” in order that it be remembered anew and in more than one way.
But no one is sympathetic to his provocative idea. What is your book about? his editor repeatedly asks. Should it be placed in the fiction section of a bookstore or with the non-fiction books? a bookseller asks. And where will the barcode go? To them, Henry’s book is an unpublishable disaster. Faced with severe and categorical rejection, Henry gives up hope. He abandons writing, moves with his wife to a foreign city, joins a community theatre, becomes a waiter in a chocolatería. But then he receives a package containing a scene from a play, photocopies from a short story by Flaubert – about a man who hunts animals down relentlessly – and a short note: “I need your help.”
Intrigued, Henry tracks down his correspondent, and finds himself in a strange part of the city, walking past a stuffed okapi into a taxidermist’s workshop. The taxidermist – also named Henry – says he has been working on his play, A 20th-Century Shirt, for most of his life, but now he needs Henry’s help to describe his characters: the play’s protagonists are a stuffed donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively, and Henry’s successful book was in part about animals. He wants help to finish his play and, we may suspect, free himself from it. And though his new acquaintance is austere, abrupt and almost unearthly, Henry the writer is drawn more and more deeply into Henry the taxidermist’s uncompromising world.
The same goes for the reader. The more we read of the play within the novel, the more we find out about the lives of Beatrice and Virgil – in a series of initially funny, and then increasingly harrowing dialogues – the more troubling their story becomes. As we are drawn deeper into their disturbing moral fable, the relationship between the two faltering writers named Henry becomes more and more complex until it can only be resolved in an explosive, unexpected catastrophe.
Though Beatrice & Virgil is initially as wry and engaging as anything Yann Martel has written, this book gradually grows into something more, a shattering and ultimately transfixing work that asks searching questions about the nature of our understanding of history, the meaning of suffering and the value of art. Together it is a pioneeringly original and profoundly moving accomplishment, one that meets Kafka’s description of what a book should be: the axe for the frozen sea within us.
About the author
Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi, the global bestseller that won the 2002 Man Booker Prize (among other honours) and was adapted to the screen in the Oscar-winning film by Ang Lee. He is also the author of the short story collection The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, the novels Self and Beatrice and Virgil, and the nonfiction work 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Born in Spain in 1963, Martel studied philosophy at Trent University, worked at odd jobs — tree planter, dishwasher, security guard — and travelled widely before turning to writing. He lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with the writer Alice Kuipers and their four children.
Excerpt: Beatrice & Virgil (by (author) Yann Martel)
(Virgil and Beatrice are sitting at the foot of the tree.
They are looking out blankly.
VIRGIL: What I’d give for a pear.
BEATRICE: A pear?
VIRGIL: Yes. A ripe and juicy one.
BEATRICE: I’ve never had a pear.
BEATRICE: In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever set eyes on one.
VIRGIL: How is that possible? It’s a common fruit.
BEATRICE: My parents were always eating apples and carrots. I
guess they didn’t like pears.
VIRGIL: But pears are so good! I bet you there’s a pear tree
right around here. (He looks about.)
BEATRICE: What does a pear taste like?
VIRGIL: Wait. You must smell it first. A ripe pear breathes a
fragrance that is watery and subtle, its power lying
in the lightness of its impression upon the olfactory
sense. Can you imagine the smell of nutmeg or
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—
which it never comes to understand, by the way.
BEATRICE: But how does it taste? I can’t wait any longer.
VIRGIL: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.
BEATRICE: Oh, that sounds good.
VIRGIL: Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is
incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those
who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the
BEATRICE: I must have one.
VIRGIL: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet another
difficult matter to put into words. Some pears are a
BEATRICE: Like an apple?
VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being
eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The
crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is
giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to . . .
BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.
VIRGIL: The flesh of a pear can be slightly gritty. And yet it
melts in the mouth.
BEATRICE: Is such a thing possible?
VIRGIL: With every pear. And that is only the look, the feel,
the smell, the texture. I have not even told you of
BEATRICE: My God!
VIRGIL: The taste of a good pear is such that when you eat
one, when your teeth sink into the bliss of one, it
becomes a wholly engrossing activity. You want to
do nothing else but eat your pear. You would rather
sit than stand. You would rather be alone than in
company. You would rather have silence than music.
All your senses but taste fall inactive. You see
nothing, you hear nothing, you feel nothing—or
only as it helps you to appreciate the divine taste of
BEATRICE: But what does it actually taste like?
VIRGIL: A pear tastes like, it tastes like . . . (He struggles. He
gives up with a shrug.) I don’t know. I can’t put it into
words. A pear tastes like itself.
BEATRICE: (sadly) I wish you had a pear.
VIRGIL: And if I had one, I would give it to you.
#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
A Financial Times Best Book
Finalist – Saskatchewan Book Awards Fiction Award
Finalist – Saskatchewan Book Awards Saskatoon Book Award
"Brilliant. . . . The subject of Beatrice & Virgil is not just one boy’s improbable adventure, but the very real horror of the Holocaust, and the difficulty of doing it justice in telling it. Martel works not at two levels, but several. . . . Be assured that with this short, crisply written, many-layered book, Martel has once again demonstrated that nothing tells the truth like fiction."
— The Plain Dealer
"Ruptures the division between worlds real and imagined, forcing us to reconsider how we think of documentary writing. Forget what this book is ‘about’: Yann Martel’s new novel not only opens us to the emotional and psychological truths of fiction, but also provides keys to open its fictions ourselves, and to become, in some way, active participants in their creation."
— The Globe and Mail
"A chilling addition to the literature about the horrors most of us cannot imagine, and will stir its readers to think about the depths of depravity to which humanity can sink and the amplitude of our capacity to survive."
— The Huffington Post
"Dark but divine. . . . Martel knows exactly what he’s doing in this lean little allegory about a talking donkey and monkey. This novel just might be a masterpiece about the Holocaust. . . . Somehow Martel brilliantly guides the reader from the too-sunny beginning into the terrifying darkness of the old man’s shop and Europe’s past. Everything comes into focus by the end, leaving the reader startled, astonished and moved."
— USA Today
"The very idea that we think that we have heard the story enough is perhaps a sign that we have not. . . . [R]ead Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil. You will be glad that you did, and you may find yourself seeing your life and the world, both fictional and otherwise, in a different light."
"Martel’s prose is artfully simple and clear. . . . Those who enjoyed the cerebral aspects of Life of Pi will find things to admire."
— Winnipeg Free Press
Other titles by Yann Martel
Lessons from an Ancient Culture
Glorious & Free
The High Mountains of Portugal
Turning Back the Pages
101 Letters to a Prime Minister
The Complete Letters to Stephen Harper
Life of Pi (Movie Tie-in Edition)
Beatrice & Virgil (Large Print) (TP)
What Is Stephen Harper Reading?
Yann Martel's Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes