Beatrice and Virgil By Yann Martel, Text Publishing, $32.95
In a small room as white and brightly lit as an operating theatre, an antlered creature stands at bay, a beautiful commodity, a thing. Encrusted with large balls of acrylic and tiny crystal beads, it sparkles like a prize from a rich person’s treasure trove, a vision of the future. Not until you stand close and peer deep into the acrylic lenses at the magnified whorls of delicate brown and gingery hair does the taxidermied elk beneath reveal itself.
This statement about manmade annihilation, by Japanese sculptor, Kohei Nawa, in Brisbane’s APT6 , is all the more powerful, it seems to me, because we have to do the work ourselves. He does with optics and silence what Yan Martel’s new novel seeks to do with words. Beatrice and Virgil, with its multiple vantage points, is a novel as much about the struggle to find the right words as it is about their meanings, words for the desperately difficult task, beset by taboos, which Martel embarks on knowing full well the risks.
Beatrice and Virgil has two central animal characters who died a long time ago and two human characters both called Henry. One is a failed author who dazzled the world with his last novel which, like Yann Martel’s extraordinary Life of Pi, sold trillions of copies, won the Booker and was translated into many languages.
This was, in retrospect anyway, no surprise. What could be more exotic and reassuring than the terrifying predicament of a Pondicherry zookeeper’s 16 yearold son bobbing in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat held safe by his love of God (Pi is a Hindu convert to both Christianity and Islam) and his empathy with animals. In the boat with him is a 450 pound Royal Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, and for a while, until they are eaten, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg and a female orangutan.
With Faith and Science on board, the reader is secure, lulled by a seductive storyteller and fabulist. Yann Martel has a boundless imagination and an astonishing way with words, taking the novel where it has never been before. Life of Pi became beloved of book groups and ordinary readers everywhere.
But he must be a publisher’s nightmare, this Yann Martel, this author who made them bucket loads of money the first time round in 2001 and, for a young author, has taken rather a long time to complete this second book. In the meantime he has been a thorn in the side of Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, sending him every fortnight since March 2007 a book he should read. This admirable cultural activism has never been acknowledged by Harper – although President Obama, after reading a Life of Pi recently with his daughter, wrote him a perfect note – ‘a lovely book – an elegant proof of God, and the power of story-telling.’ Beatrice and Virgil is not a lovely book, nor does it have the simple trajectory of story-telling we crave from best-selling authors. Martel’s imagination is as rich as ever, but this is a bleak cold intellectual world, riddled with symbolism and anecdotes about deliberate and considered killing by human hand. The author’s quandaries, normally concealed from the reader, are revealed – the blockage in the brain, the knot which must be unravelled word by painful word.
Martel starts with the most commonplace of writerly predicaments – an idea which fails to take flight and will not until it is assumes a life of its own. Henry’s long-awaited next book was to be about the Holocaust, packaged as a ‘flip book’ bound so the reader could start at either end and read through to the middle then start over again, reversing the order or not at will, through lies to truth, through imagination to reason, through fact to fiction. Henry loved this friendly format, believing it to be inspired, certain it would shatter the taboo of making Holocaust fiction.
Instead his publishers invite him to a posh lunch where his editors, his agent, and an expert historian are gathered to reject the conceit of the flip book – a marketing nightmare, commercial suicide. The taboo is only tangentially addressed as each asks the crushing question, What is your book about? – which Henry, of course, cannot answer.
So, after five years work, with an unpublishable book and a failed idea on his hands, Henry abandons writing and decides to concentrate on life. He keeps busy doing pleasant things. He and his wife move house and have two children. He takes up music again, joins a respected amateur theatre group, acquires shares in a chocolateria, adopts a kitten and a puppy. He lives as if his days on this earth are numbered. But sometimes in the middle of the night he opens the file of his precious book and aches for the old creative joy through which the truth can be uncovered. Writing is understanding, a way to discover what he thinks.
One day a large envelope from an unknown source assumed to be a fan of the best seller arrives at the theatre. Inside is a little known story by Gustave Flaubert, ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’, about the routine killing of wild animals on a grand scale, plus a fragment of a play, clearly a work-in-progress, in which two characters named Beatrice and Virgil are tenderly discussing pears. Virgil knows what a pear looks like, how it tastes and smells, but Beatrice does not. In the envelope too is a note from someone also called Henry asking for help at an address in a dingy part of town unfamiliar to Henry, the stuck author.
This turns out to be Oktapi Taxidermy, a complete, one-stop taxidermy store, with tigers and reptiles, stuffed birds, colonies of tortoises and fish, and all the paraphernalia of the taxidermist’s craft, the sinks, the knives, the smells, the rolled up hides and piles of tusks, the horns, the skulls. Oktapi Taxidermy proclaims itself as employing ‘professional natural history preparators, masters in all the techniques and materials needed to build any habitat setting you might desire in which to display your mounted animal.’
The book’s two non-human characters in the taxidermy store are Virgil, a red howler monkey sitting lightly on the back of a donkey named Beatrice. As if listening intently to Virgil, Beatrice’s head is partly turned with one ear swiveled towards him – presumably the better to hear a description of the beauty of pears.
Henry the taxidermist, a grim remote figure, wants help with words. For a stalled writer infinitely curious about the world he has entered, this is a simple enough task. He eagerly sets about exploring the right adjectives to describe Virgil’s lustrous chestnut fur and long tail as dextrous as a hand. Much more problematic is how to describe the horrifying howl of the monkey recorded forty years before in the upper reaches of the Amazon jungle. At home Henry plays the old tape over and over, filling his head and his house with the distressing howling roar which barely hints at reality, ‘but ultimately there is only the thing itself, in its raw purity. Hearing is believing.’
Eventually it is revealed that the taxidermist is writing a play in two acts. ‘A 20th century Shirt’ is a dark allegory of a European country, written on the shape of a striped shirt which reminds Henry of the Holocaust. Everything reminds Henry of the Holocaust, his wife says furiously. But the taxidermist, when asked what his play is about, responds fiercely ‘It’s about them, the animals that are two-thirds dead, two thirds of all animals have been exterminated, wiped out forever.’
The taxidermist, a craftsman who renders dead animals suitable for the collections of ordinary people to embellish their lives, merely wanted ‘to see if something could be said once the irreplaceable had been done. That is why I became a taxidermist,’ he says, ‘to bear witness.’ Henry’s loathing of his alter ego grows. He understands why all the animals in the showroom are so still; it was dread in the presence of the taxidermist. The Flaubert short story, he now understands, offers redemption without remorse.
In the end all that remains is a bloodied and crumpled piece of paper which provides the clue for his first piece of fiction writing in years. Games for Gustav poses thirteen impossible questions, each as unthinkable as the last. ‘Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter’s head?’ The novel sometimes staggers under its weight of symbolism, showing all the signs of a writer’s struggle to bring into focus the compulsion to kill and the capacity to feel nothing – the abomination which Beatrice and Virgil call the Horrors, plural.
It’s structure is bizarre and exhausting, but probably the only one which would serve for Martel. He quotes large chunks of Flaubert, provides fragments of the taxidermist’s play, Henry’s attempts at definition. Gustave’s dreadful ‘novel’ at the end has its origins in the vast archive of the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to its elimination in 1943 after the Ghetto Uprising – Martel uses lens upon lens, the focus changing all the time.
There is no consolation. God is missing. Science is there only in the service of taxidermy. Beatrice and Virgil have been dead for thirty years. Genocide and species extermination require human agency. We invented them, and the deeper we face them the more inextricable our complicity becomes. And so we find ourselves precipitated into the land-mined territory of moral equivalence by a novel which will infuriate those who see anti-Semitism and obscenity in any attempt to unpack certain words and meanings, any attempt to confront and dismantle the taboo. Words are a central part of the problem, creating a shadow world, relentless, chilling, banal, fearful, a chronicle of human failure – a writer’s failure – a failure, which in the end, is inevitable and may be irreparable.
Beatrice and Virgil is a weird brave looping book which does not pull punches. I can’t stop thinking about it. It is remains to be seen if it too has what it takes to become the darling of book groups around the world. If it does, then Martel’s achievement will be even more remarkable than before – a sure sign that he has tapped into the depth of desire out there to grapple with the unspeakable horrors of our times.