Thursday, May 06, 2010

Book Look: Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil"

Beatrice and Virgil is Yann Martel channeling Paul Auster as he calmly relates the story of a one-hit author--a stand-in for himself--who is stuck trying to write about the Holocaust in "a new way" until he encounters a taxidermist who has written a very Beckett-like play. The rest of the short novel--which at times resembles Michael Chabon's circuitous The Final Solution--revolves around excerpts of that play, and the author's attempts to define it. The sections on taxidermy-as-history are richly written, and the play itself--which follows Beatrice, a stubborn donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey--is an excellent means of abstracting-to-the-point-of-clarity the enormous struggle to talk about something that cannot be talked about. Martel is aware that Beatrice and Virgil's clever, minimalist devices for naming the Horrors is not enough, lacking plot and action, but he does himself a disservice by succumbing to the most lackluster resolution possible, one that distracts from the otherwise elegiac emptinesses of the novel. However, he redeems himself with the tragic, conclusive short story, "Games for Gustav," and with his "sewing kit," a list of coping mechanisms that are far more than the sum of the whole.

See also: Brian K. Vaughn's Pride of Baghdad. 

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