Can you imagine being so naïve that you might be seduced into getting involved with something that ordinarily you would find unutterably repulsive? Or, would you participate in something that is downright evil just for the enjoyment of showing off your particular talents? Final question: if you entered a place so dangerous, so ominous, and so nasty you could actually smell the danger lurking there would you stay and satisfy your curiosity even if all your instincts told you it could mean risking your life and the happiness of your family? You probably would answerer ‘no’ to all three of these questions just as I would have before I read Yann Martel’s book about the Holocaust entitled Beatrice and Virgil.
Henry, the protagonist, is a successful novelist going through a dry spell. His latest book, which is on the subject of the Holocaust, has been rejected by his editors and his writing career has entered into a period of slump. Money is not an issue and to try and get back some of his writer’s momentum and creativity he relocates his young family to a large city, which could be New York but is never named. Henry does not remain idle but embarks on a dilettante sort of life style… he goes to work in a chocolatier’s shop and joins an amateur theatrical company just for his own amusement. He does not seem to be doing much writing but he does browse the fan mail that is forwarded to him by his publisher and discovers that one of the correspondents is looking for help with a play he is trying to write. The correspondent is also named Henry and lives in the same city as Henry the writer. This Henry turns out to be a taxidermist living and working in a shop filled with dead animals, stuffed and propped up in life like poses.
Two of the animals are a donkey named Beatrice and a Howler monkey named Virgil. The Taxidermist’s play takes place on the surface of a striped shirt and Beatrice and Virgil are his two characters living through a time of brutal persecution called the Horrors.
If ever you have read Life of Pi or have seen the recent movie based on the book you would probably think that Beatrice and Virgil is another phantasmagorical tale because exotic animals are introduced as real characters…not quite. This novel is not blithe and airy in the way the Life of Pi is but I found it mesmerizing and read it like someone following a marked trail through a labyrinth having to always move forward because the markings behind disappeared as soon as I passed them. I was drawn into a tangled web much as Henry the writer was drawn into the world of this very strange character Henry the taxidermist whose features were so distorted the mere sight of him frightened his neighbors. Through his art the taxidermist is trying to preserve something of the essence of the dead animals in his collection and his play is about creatures tortured and beaten and suffering from post traumatic syndrome trying to find consolation through their ability to appreciate the beauty around them or something quite lovely such as the perfection of a pear.
Henry should have run away from this situation when his own dog picked up rabies after visiting the taxidermist’s shop and then proceeds to attack his family. This hint was not enough for Henry. He kept going back to see the Taxidermist’s as the latter doled out one or two pages of his play at a time. He did not see the irony of a man proposing to save animals by killing and stuffing them or of an ex Nazi writing a play about the disappearance of animal species by exploiting the holocaust as a template for his narrative. What happened to Henry’s brain? Henry was an accomplished author anxious to exercise his skills maybe in the same way an expert bookkeeper might create an inventory of eyeglasses and shoes and gold fillings of innocent people who had been murdered or so it occurred to me as I followed Henry’s story.
The play within the story is never fully realized but we are given a very good idea of what the animals have suffered. The play is full of symbolism Dante’s Inferno, a decent into hell with Beatrice to remind Virgil there is the hope of Paradise. Then there is the fictional stripped shirt… another synbol. At the end of the book there is an appendix entitled: ‘Games for Gustav’ which no one could enjoy, as it is horrifying. It is a game of hypothetical questions such as: “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?”
I have heard a rumor that Yann Martel is work -shopping the play part of this book with a group of young Toronto actors. The outcome might be quite interesting although the play is incomplete and as the Taxidermist explains, is full of moments of silence, which is perhaps why so much of the play is missing because we are supposed to use the silence for reflection. It is very Jungian is it not to examine the shadowy parts of our subconscious in order to understand our human nature?