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Before buying this book, I was intrigued by the many angry reviews claiming that Beatrice And Virgil was offensive and "tricked" the reader. I couldn't disagree more with those opinions.
There is nothing offensive in this book - there are some dark and disturbing scenes, but offensive? No, not unless many other supposedly "classic" novels throughout history covering man's darkest deeds are offensive too.
And trickery? While the reveal at the end of the book is very sudden, the author and main protagonist hint many times during the story that all is not as it seems, many times openly voicing questions about the undercurrents of the story involving Virgil, a howler monkey, and Beatrice, a donkey.
Beatrice & Virgil begins with a successful author, named Henry who coincidentally? has written a successful novel with animals as the characters. His next novel is rejected by his publishers and he takes a break from writing to reassess things. He receives a letter from a reader asking for help, along with highlighted passages from a story by Flaubert, and a scene from a play he assumes is written by the sender of the letter. Realising the address was not far from his, he decides to write back and hand deliver the letter to the reader's postbox.
When he arrives to deliver the letter he discovers the address is a taxidermy shop and he enters and ends up meeting the man who had written to him.
The taxidermist says he has spent his life writing a play and needs Henry's help with some problems he has finishing it. The taxidermist is a very odd and cold man but has written a play in which the two main characters, Beatrice & Virgil, are animals living on a shirt. Yes, a shirt. In contrast to the taxidermist's cold demeanour, Beatrice and Virgil engage in heartfelt conversations about events they can only bring themselves to call "the horrors".
Over the course of the novel, the taxidermist reads extracts of his play to Henry, who has trouble matching the author's gruff and cold aloofness to the animated and passionate animals in the story. Henry visits the taxidermist several times, trying to understand what his play is about and what message the taxidermist is trying to express with his story, all the while unable to put his finger on the dark undercurrents in the story.
At the final meeting of Henry and the taxidermist, the truth behind the story is revealed, and quite suddenly and shockingly. In fact, the entire story twists within just one sentence. With this, the story continues on very briefly, coming to an end, which while macabre, deeply sobering and dark, is far more satisfying than the ending of Martel's previous book, "Life of Pi".
For me, the mark of a great book is that you are still mulling it over in the days after you finish it, and that has been the case for me after finishing Beatrice & Virgil.
The narration was excellent - sometimes accents can bring a narrator down, but accents handled very well and overall told with a storyteller's tongue.
Yann Martel is an exceptional author & this work does not let his readers down.
While Henry, it's main character decries the lack of fiction works about the Holocaust, this is a fiction about the holocaust.
Unlike Martel's earlier works, this story has a significantly disquieting effect. Which is exactly as it ought to be. No book about the Holocaust, fiction or non-fiction ought to leave its reader untouched.
The taxidermist is a strange & discomforting character & the more time Henry spends with him or reading from his play the more uncomfortable we become, while we are drawn into the characters of Beatrice & Virgil.
It is an awkward feeling to so admire the play written by a character so disturbing in every other way.
My favourite scene is one from the play in which Virgil describes to Beatrice a pear - it's form, scent, texture. This description is unparalleled in any other work I've read. It sounds odd, perhaps dull at best, but trust me, not for a moment. Divine.
Unsettling, occasionally horrific, this story will be appreciated by people who enjoy literary fiction & who are looking for something special.
It is an excellent story, wonderfully narrated.
Compulsive listening: narrators voice is mesmerising, the story is very thought provoking.
Couldn't leave it until it had finished.
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If you could sum up Beatrice and Virgil in three words, what would they be?
Preservation versus Transformation
What did you like best about this story?
The suspense.The mood. The pace. Not to mention Flaubert popping up with his whacky St. Julien story - upon which the conclusion depends heavily, but never obviously. Very clever. One is distracted by the obvious and one's footing remains unsure which is always spectacular when you never venture father than a block or two in a city.
What does Mark Bramhall bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?
The elusive eeriness of the Taxidermist. Also, for those not used to reading plays, narration definitely helps bring the very characters of Virgil and Beatrice to life. Mr. Bramhall has a very pleasant neutral voice, and a couple of discrete and effective accents: the one for the Taxidermist does, however, give away (or better reveal?) his nationality and an essential clue as to the Taxidermist's past, before the text does. Wrong-footing you - like it did me for a while - all the more, hopefully!
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
Yes, it progresses steadily, with new little vistas around the next little corner. Almost predictable, but not quite.... You worry that you will be shown an overly rehashed scene at the next bend, but you never are.The play featured (quite centrally) is actually brilliant; Beckett barely compares! I am not so sure I ever utterly disliked the (creepy) Taxidermist or sniffed at his writing.... Hope that does not make me a very wrong person! (He remains warped in his quest for redemption.)
Henry by compare might be no more superior a writer, we are invited to consider, for a lack of imaginative transformational creativity. Even his publisher wonders what he is really writing about, despite the Holocaust for his theme. Are we asked here to hate the sin and not the sinner? Is there something extremely complex going on in the human-play on earth with the parts of perpetrator and victim never quite so clearly demarcated as history would like human psychology to be?
Any additional comments?
If it is not about the holocaust (after all what more is there to say by anyone who wasn't there?) and the brutality man inflicts upon his fellow (wo)man and animals or about surving either very lonely or very fearfully, then it is about redemption. and how it may be nothing more a matter of "declaring yourself in". But what does that take? Nothing so facile as preserving dead bodies, perhaps.
Redemption exists specifically for sinners (bo become "better" or ultimately saints). It is a tranformational act. But when is a sinner ready? How long does he have to hang on his cross? By what rule if not by God's ordination can you hope to get any? (Read Flaubert and find yourself miffed).
First, we may remind ourselves, modern psychology teaches us that you only know about the cruelest violence because you have been exposed to it. Many on the darker side of life have not necessarily chosen that front. Life pushes you. But it's man's duty to be civil and refuse to be thus bullied. And so he builds civilisations that hope to create heavens on earth.
All violence (or almost all, if you believe one can be born psychotic; but even then you could think in terms of karma...) must have a provenance or derive from some extreme and possibly corrupt survial instinct. Bear this in mind as you wade through the more sickly swampy bits towards the end - both to keep you head above the slike, as to feel the dreadful suck that makes you feel like you are suffocating. Maybe, it is impossible to give war criminals a human face unless you think in terms of redemption; but it is not up to us to extend it to them.It can't be that facile. The taxidermist is by hoping to make repairs or to restore (dead animals) on too mundane a level. On that level, maybe, there is only the playing field where there can be an eye for an eye. But then there is also his play....art. The non-mudane.
The epilogue-like bit is probably the heart of the novel. As a book of questions it is on the ventilator of our unconcscious longing for peace. Isn't it ironic how the last surviving writer/victim is left with the best insight into the cruelest games to play. He hands them down in a list (as do all the accounts of victimhood): is this a good thing? A necessary thing? .... It gives one to think how difficult it will be to find other ways to handle horror than by talking about more horror.
How to talk about atrocities without doing them more lip-service? How to talk about survivors and keep their memories alive without talking about the atrocities? But the future must be different for we are growing numb to the old stories. What are they "about" anyway?...
The main theme of Beatrice and Virgil may well be that there is an art to memory and memory is essential to change. By the way, let us not forget to bring Dante and his journey through the past of Hell and Purgatory to mind, too. Only by leaving these worlds behind does he find Beatrice (in Heaven).
Did the Taxidermist attempt to find another way but was he unfairly misunderstood or under-appreciated? Or is life a cruel and twisted means to redemption?! Are we kinder to bring to justice than leave someone to wander off in guilt?
The fine line that separates a good and kind life from sadism, masochism, violence, hatred, cruelty and condemnation has to become a new zone of artful resolution.
Can we understand any of this with our heart, yet? Can an evil-doer be forgiven by us nowadays (like in the legends of saints)?
What if, redemption is another way to consider the end to all violence/wars? But how is it earned? Who can bestow it? Who are the saintly? When is the final act of violence committed?
Who is to say the evil-doers are not ultimately redeemed (as the theme of the thief on the cross in the Christ story). I am not trying to present a religious argument but propose a tricky Existentialist-philosophical one.... Kierkegaard, Weil, even Beauvoir might have more to say on this.
This book might contain more transdimensionality than even the author could quite grasp....None of us might be ready at this time in history to offer alternatives...In the meantime, relish this little gem.
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