Although I have not read Life of Pi, I found myself in front of a copy of Beatrice and Virgil. I’ve always been a voracious reader and I was sure that eventually, I would read Life of Pi. I actually had Life of Pi in my possession for a couple of months, but never read it because at the time, there was a furore about it. I didn’t care much for that, so I placed it aside. A decade later, I might actually pick up a copy.
After purchasing Beatrice and Virgil, I quickly Googled it to see what it was about. I found Ed Champion’s rant about the book. I wasn’t disappointed that I had bought it. Bad books, just like bad movies, have their charm. Obviously, Beatrice and Virgil is a thinly disguised memoir, that’s wrapped up in a strange mystery. Martel’s writing is mesmerizing at times, and brilliant, yet at other times it’s odd and repetitive.
I finished the novella, which is said to have 224 pages, but in all honesty, it has 198 pages since the last few pages contain Games for Gustav, a series of short “games” that the taxidermist wanted Henry L’Hôte (another reference to the Flaubert story of The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator, since hôte in French means host) to come up with for his play, in a few short hours. It is self-referential, autobiographical, yet strangely compelling. Unlike Ed Champion, I don’t consider this novella the worst book of the decade. Sure, it has its faults, but there is beauty inside of it.
There is a lot of padding in this novella. Games for Gustav, which is interesting, but extremely short, an essay on taxidermy by the taxidermist, the excerpts of the Flaubert story, and more. All in all, the meat of the novella would probably fit in about 150-165 pages, with some good editing. There is no doubt in my mind that what happened to the author Henry in the book happened to Martel. I wonder though if he really wanted to put together a flip book about the Holocaust? Whatever his reasons, it was scrapped and started again, probably more than once. This kind of explains why it took so long to write.
The whole beginning part of the novella is a bit strange I have to admit. Why does Martel dwell so much upon his idiotic flip book concept? I honestly don’t know, but the strengths of the novella manage to make me forget about the faux-pas.
I am also confused why it took so long for Yann Martel to write this book. It’s been 9 years since Life of Pi was published. Admittedly, it took him 5, just like Henry the author featured inside of this book, to finish Beatrice and Virgil. The obvious padding is also annoying. For example, Beatrice and Virgil could have been published with an appendix which included the whole play that the taxidermist had written. That would have been interesting to read and it would have added a significant amount of pages to the novella, probably boosting it into 300 pages. I would have probably included the essay on the Holocaust in an appendix.
The use of animals in his novel, he explained, was for reasons of craft rather than sentiment. Speaking before his tribe, naked, he was only human and therefore—possibly—likely—surely—a liar. But dressed in furs and feathers, he became a shaman and spoke a greater truth.
Martel is already at work at his next novel which will feature chimpanzees in Northern Portugal.
It will feature three chimpanzees set in northern Portugal, and this time I’m going on to happier territory. […] So it will be a story with three chimpanzees set in northern Portugal, and I’m interested in the role of teachers in our lives. How does the wisdom of a teacher…how do you keep the wisdom alive, how do you keep the wisdom wise once the teacher is gone? I’m interested in looking at that, and I’ll be using this device of three chimpanzees.