Publisher: Penguin India
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Following the delightful and unconventional Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil was maybe unfairly burdened with expectations long before it’s release. But where Life of Pi was quirky and poignant, Beatrice and Virgil seems tiresome and hollow.
The premise of the book in itself is quite simple, and on the face of it, noble. The narrator (who seems to bear a striking resemblance to the author himself) puts it quite aptly when he says “… he was representing the holocaust differently”. The book, a parable with an animal allegory, attempts this because “No such poetic licence was taken with- or given to- the Holocaust”. This endeavour has however culminated in a book which neither achieves what it sets out to do nor does it encourage the reader to engage with it’s premise, a feat which has been done superbly before in books such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which too deals with the Holocaust.
The novel begins with Henry, an author whose book on the Holocaust has just been brutally rejected by his publisher. He and wife then move to an unnamed metropolis where he receives a letter from an admirer in the same city whom he tracks down. The subsequent meeting and the events that follow form the crux of the tale. The admirer, also called Henry, is an amateur playwright who presents his work to the narrator for criticism and help. The work is a play called ‘The 20th Century Shirt’ having as it’s protagonists Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a monkey, who are apparently the playwright’s ‘guides through hell’ in a direct invocation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
What follows is an uninspiring, and at times offensive, attempt to reclaim the Holocaust, as represented through the brutality faced by Beatrice and Virgil, which is explained in brutal detail towards the end. The dialogues of the play come startlingly close to plagiarizing Beckett’s Waiting for Godot while capturing none of the wit and soul of the same.
The coda is possibly the only aspect of the book which can be considered redemptive. A series of twelve haunting questions followed by a blank one, it goads the reader to step back and think, with head and heart. If only Martel had been the same with the whole book, it would have been a truly rousing account of an era which is as described in the book “… the Horrors”.