Wow — nine years was certainly worth the wait! Henry L'Hôte is a wildly successful novelist who is thwarted in his desire to publish his next novel. While taking a break from writing, he receives a mysterious package from a fan who sends part of a story, part of a play, and a note asking for his help. What follows could only happen in a Yann Martel novel; he makes the surreal and impossible seem normal and routine. A strange and unsettling relationship develops between Henry-the-author, and Henry-the-taxidermist, from which the author is somehow unable to disengage. A unique and surprising story, Beatrice and Virgil will completely draw you in. This latest offering from Martel is a rare treat, a perfect allegory that unfolds effortlessly, while being both entertaining and deeply, profoundly, intensely meaningful. Fantastic! Recommended By Dianah H., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well.
Yann Martel’s astonishing new novel begins with a successful writer attempting to publish his latest book, made up of a novel and an essay. Henry plans for it to be a “flip book” that the reader can start at either end, reading the novel or the essay first, because both pieces are equally concerned with representations of the Holocaust. His aim is to give the most horrifying of tragedies “a new choice of stories,” in order that it be remembered anew and in more than one way.
But no one is sympathetic to his provocative idea. What is your book about? his editor repeatedly asks. Should it be placed in the fiction section of a bookstore or with the non-fiction books? a bookseller asks. And where will the barcode go? To them, Henry’s book is an unpublishable disaster. Faced with severe and categorical rejection, Henry gives up hope. He abandons writing, moves with his wife to a foreign city, joins a community theatre, becomes a waiter in a chocolatería. But then he receives a package containing a scene from a play, photocopies from a short story by Flaubert – about a man who hunts animals down relentlessly – and a short note: “I need your help.”
Intrigued, Henry tracks down his correspondent, and finds himself in a strange part of the city, walking past a stuffed okapi into a taxidermist’s workshop. The taxidermist – also named Henry – says he has been working on his play, A 20th-Century Shirt, for most of his life, but now he needs Henry’s help to describe his characters: the play’s protagonists are a stuffed donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively, and Henry’s successful book was in part about animals. He wants help to finish his play and, we may suspect, free himself from it. And though his new acquaintance is austere, abrupt and almost unearthly, Henry the writer is drawn more and more deeply into Henry the taxidermist’s uncompromising world.
The same goes for the reader. The more we read of the play within the novel, the more we find out about the lives of Beatrice and Virgil – in a series of initially funny, and then increasingly harrowing dialogues – the more troubling their story becomes. As we are drawn deeper into their disturbing moral fable, the relationship between the two faltering writers named Henry becomes more and more complex until it can only be resolved in an explosive, unexpected catastrophe.
Though Beatrice & Virgil is initially as wry and engaging as anything Yann Martel has written, this book gradually grows into something more, a shattering and ultimately transfixing work that asks searching questions about the nature of our understanding of history, the meaning of suffering and the value of art. Together it is a pioneeringly original and profoundly moving accomplishment, one that meets Kafka’s description of what a book should be: the axe for the frozen sea within us.
At last! An astonishing and original new novel by the author of Life of Pi
A famous author receives a mysterious letter from a man who is a struggling writer but also turns out to be a taxidermist, an eccentric and fascinating character who does not kill animals but preserves them as they lived, with skill and dedication — among them a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice....
About the Author
The award-winning author of four previous books, the most recent of which is What Is Stephen Harper Reading?, Yann Martel is one of this country's most interesting and surprising writers. Born in Spain in 1963, Yann grew up in various places as the son of diplomats. His parents now live in Montreal, where Yann visits regularly. He won the Journey Prize for the title story in The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. Life of Pi was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It was the winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction as well as the Man Booker Prize. Yann lives with writer Alice Kuipers and their son, Theo, in Saskatoon.
Reading Group Guide
1. What is Beatrice & Virgil
2. Why do you think Martel decided to name both of his characters "Henry"?
3. Discuss the characters of Beatrice and Virgil. Why might Martel have chosen them to be a donkey and a howler monkey, and why might he have chosen to name these characters after Dante's guides through heaven and purgatory?
4. What do you think of Henry's original idea for his book? Do you agree with him that the Holocaust needs to be remembered in different ways, beyond the confines of "historical realism"? Why, or why not?
5. How would you compare Beatrice & Virgil to Life of Pi? How do Yann Martel's aims in the two novels differ, and how does he go about achieving them?
6. Close to the start of the book, Henry (the writer) says, "A book is a part of speech. At the heart of mine is an incredibly upsetting event that can survive only in dialogue" (p. 12). What does this mean? How does his comment inform the book we are reading?
7. Describe the role Flaubert's story "The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator" plays in the novel.
8. How do you explain Henry's wife's reaction to the taxidermist and his workshop?
9. How do you feel about the play "A 20th-Century Shirt"? Could it be performed? What role does it play in the book?
10. What moral challenges does Beatrice & Virgil present the reader with? What does it leave you thinking about?
11. How is writing like or unlike taxidermy in the book?
12. What role do Erasmus and Mendelssohn play in the novel?
13. What is the significance of 68 Nowolipki Street?
14. How is Henry changed by the events of the novel? How does this relate to Beatrice and Virgil having "no reason to change" (p. 151) over the course of their play?