By now you probably know that Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil was published yesterday. This is Martel’s first novel since Life of Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize and sold more than two million copies. (Click hear to read an interview with Martel about his new novel.)
If you’ve been following review outlets, you’ll also know that critics are divided over the novel. (I reviewed it for BookPage, and I liked it.) In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani uses adjectives like “misconceived,” “offensive” and “perverse” to describe the novel. In USA Today, Deirdre Donahue suggests that the book is “a masterpiece about the Holocaust.” In the blog world, Ti at Book Chatter calls Beatrice and Virgil “brilliant.” Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog says it’s “one of the most disappointing” books of the year.
My conclusion? Depending on taste, you'll either love this book or hate it, and you just need to read it to find out. It's a short read at only 200 pages, and I can guarantee one thing: Beatrice and Virgil will at least leave you thinking.
It is difficult to summarize the novel's plot in just a couple sentences, but basically the story follows Henry (whose life parallels Martel's), a novelist, who comes to have a weird friendship with a taxidermist who's writing a play. The play stars Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a howler monkey, and Henry comes to see their story as an allegory for the Holocaust.
The passage I've chosen to excerpt is from my favorite scene in the book, in which Virgil describes a pear to Beatrice, who has never eaten or seen one before.
By the way: What are you reading today?
Virgil: If you could magnify it a hundred times, do you know what it would sound like, the sound of fingertips running over the skin of a dry pear?
V: It would sound like the diamond of a record player entering a groove. That same dancing crackle, like the burning of the driest, lightest kindling.
B: A pear is surely the finest fruit in the world!
V: It is, it is! That’s the skin of a pear for you.
B: Can one eat it?
V: Of course. We’re not talking here of the waxy, thuggish skin of an orange. The skin of a pear is soft and yielding when ripe.
B: And what does a pear taste like?
V: 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 cinnamon?
B: I can.
V: 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.
B: But how does it taste? I can’t wait any longer.
V: A ripe pear overflows with sweet juiciness.
B: Oh, that sounds good.
V: 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 dark.
B: I must have one.
V: The texture of a pear, its consistency, is yet another difficult matter to put into words. Some pears are a little crunchy.
B: Like an apple?
V: 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. . . kissing.