Beatrice and Virgil – Yann Martel

The BookDepository

I loved Life of Pi so much that I bought a copy of Beatrice and Virgil from the US, months before it was released in the UK. Unfortunately my enthusiasm failed to pay off as I was very disappointed by it. 

Beatrice and Virgil is a book about the Holocaust, but there are many points when it is almost impossible to see the connection.

The book begins with Henry, a successful author, ranting about a publisher refusing to let him write a book which combines non-fictional accounts of the Holocaust with fictional ones.  One day Henry receives a strange package from a taxidermist, also called Henry, and is so intrigued he heads off to meet him. The taxidermist has written a play about a monkey and a donkey who live on a shirt. This play becomes the focus of the book, as the two Henrys discuss how to improve it.

The play is an allegory for the Holocaust, but the continual use of symbolism drove me mad. I’m afraid that I’m the type of person who prefers to call a spade a spade! I loved The Kindly Ones because it showed the Holocaust in all its horrific rawness, but although Beatrice and Virgil didn’t shy away from graphic violence, I found myself cringing as I read it rather than experiencing the sense of shock and sadness that I should have felt.

Another problem I had with the book was that it felt disjointed. For such a small book there were a lot of random elements thrown together, some so odd that they left me totally baffled. There was one point where they spent 8 pages trying to describe a pear – my eyes were rolling throughout:

BEATRICE: Like an apple?

VIRGIL: 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.

BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.

The end of the book contained a section called Games for Gustav. This is a series of questions about the moral dilemmas faced by those affected by the Holocaust.

GAME NUMBER ONE
Your ten-year-old son is speaking to you. He says he has found a way of obtaining some potatoes to feed your starving family. If he is caught, he will be killed. Do you let him go? 

Each of these would make an interesting premise for a story, but placed together in this way I found them to be manipulative and irritating.

Overall I found that the whole book made my blood boil with rage. It could be said that this is a positive reaction; that it is far better for an author to create a book that is memorable in its dreadfulness than one which is dull and forgettable. I’ll leave you to make up your own minds!

Beatrice and Virgil is the perfect book club choice as I guarantee it will create discussion – people will be arguing about this book for years to come.

What did Yann Martel have to say about his book?

WARNING MAY CONTAIN SLIGHT SPOILERS

On 3rd June 2010 I went to see Yann Martel talk about his new book at the South Bank Centre in London.  He was an entertaining speaker, willing and eager to answer questions from the public and regularly able to make us all laugh. I tried to make as many notes as possible, but the following is a summary of what he had to say – not direct quotes from him.

Why did you write the book?

I had noticed that there was an absence of fictional books about the Holocaust. People seem to be relaxed writing about wars, but are scared to write about the Holocaust. I wanted to fill this gap, so this book is an attempt to meet the Holocaust without being a witness.

Why did you use animals in the book?

The inspiration for using animals came from The Life of Pi. It is an obvious literary device, but I wanted to select animals that would be guides through the Hell that is the Holocaust. Selecting Dante’s guides seemed like a natural choice.

Why did you spend eight pages describing a pear?

Language trivialises pears. The section shows that no amount of words can adequately describe a pear, so how can we describe something as complex as war if we can’t even describe an object as simple as a pear?

What is the sewing kit about?

The sewing kit contains a lot of random literary elements. I wanted to list them together to see how many people would recognise and how many would “stick”.

Why did you give the central characters the same name?

The two central characters are both called Henry. This is because I didn’t want people to deduce anything about their personality from the name. I wanted to show that a person only lives the way they do by the random lottery of where they are born. We are all essentially the same.

Where is the book set?

The setting of the book is deliberately never mentioned. This is because I wanted the book to be universal – it could equally be set in almost any country of the world.

What is your next book about?

Three chimps in Portugal (note – I couldn’t decide if this is true or just a joke!)

What do you think?

Did you enjoy Beatrice and Virgil?

Is a book a success if it is memorable and provokes discussion?


Send to Kindle

77 Comments

  1. Iris says:

    You probably didn’t have this in mind when you wrote this, but I need to read this book. I’ve heard so many different accounts of it and it seems to have people react in such different, but strong, manners. I’ll save it for the summer, but I can’t help but admit that I’m becoming more curious with every review I read.

    1. Jackie says:

      Iris, This book does seem to be dividing people. I can’t help thinking that the book must be quite good if it has given me such a strong emotional response. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it!

  2. I very much took the premise of his new book to be true. His explanations and your vehement reaction have me itching to read it (collecting my copy tomorrow – still annoyed by the delay). I have a feeling that I will be the fourth person to love this book!

    1. *I mean the forthcoming book, the one he is working on, in that first sentence.

      1. Jackie says:

        Claire, Don’t worry I knew what you meant :-) I’m really interested to see what his 3 monkeys in Portugal get up to!

        I will be very interested to see what you make of this book. I hope you get your copy tomorrow.

  3. Violet says:

    I love this book so much! I have not felt so excited about reading a book in ages. The story is so cleverly executed, and the narrative beautifully done. For me, it was such a relief to read something that deviated from the formulaic fiction that crowds the shelves of book stores.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, This book does seem to divide people – I’m really pleased that you managed to enjoy it :-)

  4. I must be one of the few people who haven’t read Life of Pi, and I must say I have even less inclination to read this! Thank you for taking the pain.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, Life of Pi is one of those classic books that you should read, just so you know what everyone is talking about – I think the same could be said of this one. Enjoy!

  5. diane says:

    I loved Life of Pi (audio version) , and could not wait for Beatrice and Virgil. I did like this one (not at all what I expected), but it was not as good as Life of Pi IMO. Sorry u were disappointed Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      diane, I can see how Beatrice and Virgil might have worked better on audio. Yann Martel’s reading was quite amusing, so perhaps you get the sarcasm better when listening to it?

  6. Charlie says:

    The answers to the questions are strange, I’m wondering how anyone can rationally excuse themselves 8 pages of description on one sole thing, unless it were a contest or something. It’s made it memorable though it seems, which is what you want…just it’s better if it’s because a book was great.

    I’ll still give Life of Pi a go I think, and decide on my reaction to that whether to try this one. Reading your review has made me interested!

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, It is a reasonable excuse, but why can’t you just have a sentence saying how difficult it is to describe a pear instead of 8 pages of cheesy lines? It drove me mad!!

  7. Study Window says:

    I half heard Martel talking about this on Radio 4 this morning and caught something about not being able to write it as a narrative because there was no narrative associated with the Holocaust. I think I’ll have to go back and listen to the podcast (Start the Week) and listen properly before I decide whether or not I’m going to try this. There are so many other books out there that do have a narrative and I may be old fashioned but I do like a good narrative.

    1. Jackie says:

      Study Window, I think The Kindly Ones proves that the Holocaust does have a narrative – an infinite number of them actually. I would be interested in hearing his talk – I’ll see if I can find it – thanks for letting me know about it.

  8. mee says:

    I’m baffled to know he said there’s an absence of fictional books on holocaust. I think there are too many of them. The market is drenched with holocaust books that I struggle to avoid them.

    Anyway, it’s disappointing to know it may not be as good as Life of Pi (as I loved Pi!). I may wait for a while to read this. Or skip it altogether.

    1. Jackie says:

      mee, I know! There seem to have been a massive number recently. I’ve read about 4 in the last year and I wasn’t even seeking them out!

    2. Stewart says:

      Think about it. Yes, there are plenty of books out there, all fiction, dealing with the Holocaust. Because of the the scale and darkness of the event, these treatments are of a realistic bent. Soldiers following orders or victims of these soldiers. I believe he’s talking about diverging from the know horrors and making of the Holocaust a fictional take on it, such as the metaphorical.

      1. I agree with Stewart. I don’t think Martel is asserting that there is a dearth of Holocaust literature available; rather that there is not literature that tackles the Holocaust from the perspective of one who wasn’t present — either in Europe, in a camp, as a perpetrator, etc.

        This book worked for me even though it didn’t for so many others.

        1. Jackie says:

          Stewart/Rebekah, That could well be what he was saying. Most books are based on real events, even if they aren’t non-fiction. It is an interesting new idea, but I’m afraid that it just didn’t work for me.

  9. Amy says:

    I don’t (really, really don’t) understand where Martel is coming from saying that we don’t have fictional accounts of the Holocaust. There seems to be a crazy abundance of them out there, at least recently.

    I enjoyed the book until the crazy things at the end, but definitely agree – it was way too manipulative. I feel like it was written solely to manipulate rather than focusing on the story, if that makes sense.

    1. What Yann Martel actually said was that there weren’t many fictional Holocaust accounts written by non-Jews (I’d disagree with that to an extent also but I saw his point). I found his argument about the need for fictional accounts by non-Jews to be both persuasive and fascinating; the Holocaust was perpetrated by non-Jews therefore non-Jews should enter into a dialogue to better understand it and ensure that it never happens again.

      1. Jackie says:

        Claire, At the end of the talk he commented about the lack of non-Jewish Holocaust literature, but at the beginning he said there wasn’t much fiction. He said there was a massive amount of non-fictional accounts, but very few fictional narratives – I made a note of it as it didn’t ring true to me.

    2. Jackie says:

      Amy, That makes a lot of sense! The whole book was manipulative. I’m not a fan of books that try to be too clever, but am pleased that you managed to enjoy it despite the way it was written.

  10. S. Krishna says:

    I’ve heard not encouraging things about this book. I’ll probably still pick it up at some point, but I’ve pushed it WAY down on the list for now.

    1. Jackie says:

      S. Krishna, I do hope that you get round to it at some point, as it would be great to see your thoughts. I’m sure that you have a lot of better books in your TBR pile though ;-)

  11. I loved Life of Pi too, but everything I’ve heard about this, including your review, tell me I won’t like this one. And I totally agree with Amy – no fictional accounts of the Holocaust? wtf?!!!

    1. Jackie says:

      rhapsodyinbooks, LOL! Yann Martel obviously needs one of us book bloggers to write a ’50 best books about the Holocaust’ post!!

  12. Sandy says:

    I loved The Life of Pi the first time I read it, but just did a re-read for book club on audio and liked it alot less. Was it because of the audio, or because I already knew the ending? I don’t know. But I really wish I’d have left it alone! As to this book, I’ve seen people love it and hate it. Personally, if I can offer an opinion without having read it? I think Martel is overthinking things a bit much.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, It has been a long time since I read Life of Pi, so I do sometimes wonder what I’d think if I read it for the first time today. Your reaction is exactly why I’m scared to re-read my favourites :-)

  13. Steph says:

    Oh no! So sorry to hear this was such a let down… I’ve heard mostly lukewarm/negative things about this one, which is a real shame because I also really loved Life of Pi. I have a copy of this one, so I know I will give it a go at some point, but I admit I’m not rushing to do so!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I vote for you to get it over with as soon as possible ;-) It will only take you a few hours – try to read it soon ;-)

  14. I’d agree that there is a successful element to a book if it engages a reader, even if it’s not the reader’s heart that’s engaged. I found Life of Pi a very odd reading experience: there were parts of it that I found extremely frustrating and even the parts of it that I admired were problematic in some ways. *But* it ended up being one of my best reading experiences of that year because there was so much to think about, so many different ways to approach the story. I’m sure I spent more time with that book than I did with some of my so-called favourites of that year. So I’d say it was a successful read for me. Albeit it one that drove me crazy!

    1. Jackie says:

      BuriedInPrint, There is a LOT to think about in this book – very impressive considering its short length. If you like having something to think about then I recommend reading Beatrice and Virgil. Only problem is that I still thinking of the best way rid the land of the striped shirt from my memory ;-)

  15. Shannon says:

    Thanks for the review. I was looking forward to the book for a while. I enjoyed Life of Pi (though wasn’t as excited about it as most people) and became a fan of Yann Martel’s when he started sending our PM (who seems to enjoy cutting funding to the arts and who I’m not a fan of) an important book to read every two months. But then I started reading the reviews for this book and it sounds like something I will not enjoy.
    I may read it though because I’m curious to see if this is a case of a book not being able to live up to the successful one that came before, or if the subject matter is treated horribly.

    1. Jackie says:

      Shannon, Martel talked about the way he sends books to your PM. I loved his passion for books and his dedication to what seems like a lost cause. He was very funny when he described the way his books are passed around the PMs office and summarised to him by his junior employees!

  16. Lahni says:

    Reading the Q/A at the end of this review made me like the book less than I originally did. I got the sense from the book that Martel was a pretty arrogant guy but reading those answers confirmed it! It seems that all the attention he got for The Life of Pi has gone to his head!

    1. Jackie says:

      Lahni, I wouldn’t describe him as arrogant – he seemed like a really nice, thoughtful man. I think misguided is a better word :-) It must be really hard to follow up such a successful book.

  17. Kathleen says:

    Well I won’t be able to resist reading this one at some point. If nothing else, I have to see for myself how bad it is. I’ve not seen a positive review of this one yet.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, I’ve seen one:

      http://still-life-with-books.com/?p=934

      This book does seem to divide people. I haven’t seen an average review – people either love it or hate it.

  18. Shannon says:

    I think you probably remember my review :) I really liked it but I didn’t love it like Life of Pi. I thought it succeeded in its aims. And I loved Beatrice and Virgil, even their discussion of a pear!

    1. Jackie says:

      Shannon, LOL! That pear discussion has to be the most annoying thing I’ve read this year – amazed anyone can like it, but it is good to know that we are all different!

  19. Jenners says:

    I’ve heard a lot of negative things about this book. I’m not sure if I’ll read it for myself or not.

    And it doesn’t strike me that there aren’t a lot of fictional books dealing with the Holocaust. I’ve read at least two in the last few months without even planning to.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, There do seem to be an increasing number of Holocaust books published at the moment. Perhaps Martel just doesn’t read newer books?

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, LOL! That is the funniest thing I have ever read in the Guardian!! Thanks for sharing.

  20. yeah, i’ve read a lot of negative reviews on this, both on blogs and elsewhere.

    1. Jackie says:

      J.T. Negative reviews seem to be cropping up all the time. It is nice to see that this book is persuading a few people to write the first negative review of their lives.

  21. I just got this book in the post last week and I have been dying to read it as I was in love with Life of Pi. I have seen quite mixed reviews too and I know I really want to love it because of Pi.

    Great review though, Jackie. I will let you know what I think when I read it soon.

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, I’m looking forward to seeing what you think of this book – enjoy!

  22. Jenny says:

    Wait, what? There are no fictional books about the Holocaust? There are sooo many fictional books about the Holocaust. I decided a while ago that Beatrice & Virgil was not for me. I thought Life of Pi was very cool and I loved the ending more than practically any other end-of-a-book I can think of, but B&V sounds uneven at best.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, The Life of Pi did have a fantastic ending. I think Stone’s Fall is the only other book I’ve read with such a twist in the last few pages. It is such a shame that his follow up isn’t as good.

    2. Shannon says:

      I thought so too Jenny. It’s a very popular topic for fiction as well as memoirs. This one was very different though.

  23. Thanks for sharing the interview responses from Martel. Those are interesting.

    Here’s my review: http://www.monniblog.com/2010/05/beatrice-virgil-by-yann-martel/

    1. Jackie says:

      Monica, I’ve just been across to your review and tried to answer a few of your questions – I hope that helped :-)

  24. Dan Holloway says:

    Ooh, I see this has provoked much discussion already. I’ve been eagerly awaiting thoughts on this. and the notes are just priceless – the bit about the pear especially – it’s GREAT that authors want to make the redaer think, address questions like the impossibility of capturing the horror of war (though Picasso didn’t do a bad job with Guernica, which also happens to be – unlike this book by the sound of it – a painting one never tires of viewing). What they need to realise, though, is that if they write in such a way that the reader puts the book down after a few pages then any points they wanted to make would be lost forever – and no, it’s not the reader’s fault!

    I will try to give this book a chance because I’m aware that I have been somewhat prejudiced against it for quite a while, and that’s not good – ever since the announcement that Martel was ditching his original publisher because they refused to offer him the right kind of 7 figure advance – the kind of behaviour that, I’m afraid, gives us authors a rather bad name.

    I’m glad to hear he was a good speaker, though – I’d certainly be interested in hearing him talk.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dan, I think the notes speak for themselves :-) At least he has created a memorable book – I will remember that stupid pear scene for a very long time!!

      I wasn’t aware that he’d ditched his publisher. That is sad :-(

      I hope you enjoy reading the book!

    2. Shannon says:

      I liked it, Dan :) It’s not a straight-forward “like”, though.

  25. Auraya says:

    De-lurking briefly just to thank you for your review of Beatrice and Virgil – it’s one that I had been looking forward to intensely and I would probably have spent a lot of money buying the hardback version, so thank you for saving me a bit of money :o ) I’ll wait for the paperback or may be just get it from my library.

    Btw, I imagine that you don’t really read graphic novels but you may want to look up Maus by Art Spiegelman – it also uses animals to tell the story of the Holocaust but in that case, the allegory really works, in my opinion.

    1. Jackie says:

      Auraya, Thanks for de-lurking :-)

      I haven’t read that many graphic novels, but have enjoyed the ones I’ve tried. I already have a copy of Maus, but haven’t got around to reading it yet. I have heard lots of wonderful things about Maus so I’m sure I’ll enjoy it much more than Beatrice and Virgil.

  26. Hi there,

    I was at a reading and with talk Yann Martel at the Dublin Writers Festival last weekend and can maybe add a few more thoughts. Jackie, I agree he is a great speaker and came across as an interesting person. While I found the bit he read out from B&V relatively ‘slow’ his explanation for writing the way he does seemed plausible. I am, for instance, not a big fan e.g. of visual art as it doesn’t touch me very much, however, I don’t think it needs to be the goal of a painter to always be accessible enough to make everybody understand their work. Same goes for literature as far as I’m concerned. Right now I am not very tempted to read the book merely for enjoyment, but who knows what I might be into in the future ;-) .

    Apologies if my notes from the reading are not entirely coherent, but as far as I remember he said he wanted to get away from the historical realism of so many other books and films about the Holocaust. He felt that using animals he could be a fly on the wall rather than perpetuating existing preconceptions of what happened (which he said is in any case only based on the experience of about 2% of Holocaust survivors who spoke out about it). He also seems to think that if we limit how we talk about something we automatically also limit how we think about it. As far as I can see he likes centering his stories around sympathetic characters that the writer might find comfortable to follow or be guided by through the plot. and is quite a fan or symbolism. I hugely enjoyed Life of Pi at the time I read it and was also very intrigued by his What is Stephen Harper Reading? project and some of the other things he said. So all in all, B&V is not exactly the ideal summer read, but if you’re looking for an alternative way of approaching the Holocaust, do give it a try.

    1. Jackie says:

      Life is a Festival! Thank you for adding such a useful comment!

      I’m not a big fan of the visual arts either, so that is a great analogy.

      I didn’t like this book, but I am becoming increasingly impressed by the amount of conversation it is generarting. Martel stated that his prime aim for the book was to get people talking about the Holocaust and so it looks as though he has achieved that :-)

      This isn’t the sort of book I enjoy reading, but I am impressed by how memorable it all is. I’m sure we’ll all be discussing it in many years time – perhaps that is an indication of the quality of the book?

  27. Rebecca says:

    So far I haven’t read any positive reviews of this book. They all seem to range from meh to “I wanted to throw the book against the wall”. I was very confused about the 8 pages of describing a pear but it makes more sense why it is there when he shared his intentions. But if you are reading that and it doesn’t make sense why it is there that would be very frustrating. I would want to stop reading.

    I loved Life of Pi so I am disappointed this book hasn’t gotten good reviews. I don’t know whether I want to try it to see if I could like it or not.

    1. Jackie says:

      Rebecca, LOL! Good summary! I’m at the throw it against a wall end :-)

  28. Bina says:

    It´s so confusing, reviews of this book all have a different opinion. But I´m guessing I probably won´t love it, it sounds too weird. The pear thing would drive me up a wall as well. That you managed to get through that part. . . wow :)
    But I really liked Life of Pi!

    1. Jackie says:

      Bina, I think the only way you’ll know what to think is to give it a try and see for yourself. This really is a very different book and so it is impossible to predict if you will love it or hate it!

  29. I have seen VERY many mixed reviews on this one. I’d like to read it, but I’ll get it from the library instead of buying it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Melissa, I suspect that there might be a long queue for this one, but I hope that you get to it soon. :-)

  30. Elise says:

    I did really enjoy Beatrice and Virgil. I completely understand the frustration with the symbolism, however I enjoyed it until it became too obvious and then explained in the next paragraph. I am not stupid! I get it! I found the passage about the pear quite beautiful and I really enjoyed all the bits in which Beatrice and Virgil are the focus. I thought it was beautifully written and cried at the end. However in saying that, I can completely understand your frustration and I think if I read it again I would be frustrated with it. You can only read it once with innocent eyes and that would ruin any rereads for me. Overall though, I loved it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Elise, I agree that the way the book pointed out all the symbols was irritating. I admit that I read most of the book twice in order to get my thoughts straight. Perhaps that was my mistake?!

  31. Joanna says:

    Hmmm… I was worried about this, which is why I didn’t buy the book yet… I also loved Life of Pi but am slightly sceptical about this one.

    1. Jackie says:

      Joanna, I’m sure we’ll all still be talking about it for a long time, so we’ll still be around whenever you decide to read it.

  32. Nicole says:

    I always knew what he was trying to do, but I just didn’t find the book to be very engaging. I was bored through most of it. He might have been trying to make a point with the pear, but that is one of those things that I don’t feel would be apparent unless you are familiar with the author and how he thinks. The conclusion he proposes is not one that I would automatically jump to. I was more irritated with the fact that i was bored and had to finish the book for a discussion than anything else.

  33. Oh no!! 2 stars!! And you loved Life of Pi (which I also did). I didn’t read your review yet and not even the comments. I’ll wait to read them when I’ve finished the book. I hope I’ll like it more than you. I’ve read Martel’s Self, the one he wrote before Life of Pi, which was very strange but still written so well. I think he can never go well with his writing. It may be just the story that might miss the mark..

  34. I meant he can never go wrong with his writing. :D

  35. Wow, I could not be more turned off by this book, between yours and John Self’s review.

    I get the sense that Martel used this is book as a sandbox for some lofty literary ideas he had, but didn’t do the reader the justice of actually packaging these in an enjoyable way. Did he know that people would read this, whatever he threw on the page, because of the success of Life of Pi?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. June Summary and Plans for July – Farm Lane Books Blog
  2. Book Review: Beatrice and Virgil « The Book Whisperer
  3. Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel | Ardent Reader

Leave a Reply