In an early scene from Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel’s follow-up to mega-hit Life of Pi, a novelist, Henry, is stumped by a simple question: “What’s your book about?”
Henry’s book—or rather, his “flip book,” which is comprised of a novel and a nonfiction essay printed, in relation to each other, upside down and back-to-back—is about the representation of the Holocaust in stories. He points out that earlier artists, such as George Orwell in Animal Farm, had “taken a vast, sprawling tragedy, had found its heart and had represented it in a nonliteral and compact way.” He wants to do the same with his flip book, but his publisher doesn’t buy it.
In a later scene, when Henry encounters a taxidermist who is also an aspiring playwright, he says, “Let me ask you a simple question: what’s your play about?” The taxidermist’s play is narrated by Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a howler monkey whose namesakes are Dante’s guides in the Divine Comedy. The play is about “the Horrors”—tragic events that have happened to the animals—and the way in which Beatrice and Virgil will come to talk about them. “To talk-about so that we might live-with—I presume that’s why we want to do this?” asks Virgil in Martel’s play-in-a-novel. “Yes,” responds Beatrice. “To remember and yet to go on living.” But are the Horrors the murders of animals, and the play a call for animal protection? Or could the story be an allegory for the Holocaust, which Henry comes to suspect?
Martel’s short novel has many wonders: vivid, creepy images of the taxidermist’s shop; a lovely—and very funny—description of a pear for someone who has never tasted one before; and other strange and seemingly unrelated scenes. Readers who make their way through the story are bound to echo Henry and his publisher: What is this book about? What is this play about?
There is no straightforward answer to these questions. Beatrice and Virgil is a book about artists facing judgment for their work, or suffering from creative block. It is about the historical treatment of certain events, and the individual responses to mass tragedy. It is about how animals—standing in for people—can cause a “reader’s disbelief. . . to lift, like a stage curtain.” It is about the way we view and treat animals.
Beatrice and Virgil ends in a series of moral questions that will leave the reader perplexed and sad; this novel is not a fantastic adventure story like Life of Pi, which ends on a happier note. But Martel’s latest work does something extraordinary, too: It causes the reader to contemplate serious ideas, and to think. Beatrice and Virgil will haunt you long after the final page.