Monday, May 24, 2010

A Beastly Tale

This appeared in Saturday's The Hindustan Times

There’s no getting away from it: Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is an ungainly, at times unsavoury, book. Like his earlier Life of Pi, this one features talking animals, in this case a donkey and a howler monkey who take their names from characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In that epic, Beatrice is the poet’s guide through Heaven while Virgil accompanies Dante through Hell; here, they’re creatures in a play written by one of Martel’s characters.

The disjointed plot revolves around the travails of Henry, an author much like Martel in that he’s based in Canada and has written a hugely successful second novel featuring animals. That, after all, is the easy way of being postmodern nowadays: centre your novel on a character much like yourself to keep the reader tantalized for no good reason.

Be that as it may, Henry finds his latest manuscript met with bewilderment and even hostility by his publishers. It’s a half-fiction half-essay exploration of the Holocaust; what he’s trying to do is “….take a vast sprawling tragedy….find its heart….and represent it in a nonliteral and compact way”. Of course, there have been others who have written about the Holocaust on their own fictional terms, and in Beatrice and Virgil, they receive a token mention: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and David Grossman’s See Under: Love, among others.

This rejection brings about an acute case of writer’s block. Henry and his wife move to another, unnamed city where he occupies himself by learning music and performing with an amateur dramatic troupe. Here, he comes across a taxidermist who wants his opinion of a play he’s written and, almost against his will, Henry finds himself drawn to this beastly fellow. He meets him regularly to get a crash course in stuffing animals as well as to discuss the play.

Much of Beatrice and Virgil is given over to extracts from this work, clearly inspired by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. When we first meet them, the animals converse about the taste of fruit, the nature of faith and the naming of days, going on to talk of life’s pleasures, pains and essential meaninglessness. The going gets heavy and the plot comes to a standstill while Martel tries to impress upon us the portent and weight of what he’s trying to achieve, namely, create allegorical correspondences between the plight of the animals and the victims of the Holocaust.

The writing throughout is uncomplicated, sometimes facile. It may make sense to settle on a faux-naif style to offset the heaviness of the subject matter, but many times, this comes across as affected, crossing the line between simple and simplistic. Take, for instance, the animals referring to a certain “Aukitz”, or the naming of events that have befallen them as “the Horrors”. In addition, the supposedly philosophical puzzles that appear at the end are banal, causing exasperation more than anything else.

Early on, we’re told that one of the reactions to Henry’s work of fiction is that “…the novel was tedious, the plot feeble, the characters unconvincing….” Unfortunately, those words could well be applied to Beatrice and Virgil as a whole.

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