Beatrice and Virgil
By Yann Martel
(Knopf Canada) $29.95
“Culture is the coat we wear to keep us warm,” says Yann Martel. “Religion and art are its prime achievements, ineffable and mysterious in their power.”
In an interview with The Observer, Martel described his third novel, Beatrice and Virgil, as “a cautionary moral allegory” about the Holocaust remembered by generations who did not know it, living half a century after the world belatedly confronted it.
The novel is made of juxtaposed fragments: a rejected manuscript sketchily described, a protagonist and antagonist both named Henry, scenes from an unperformed play, a Gustave Flaubert story, a game of 13 questions and a taxidermy shop filled with specimens and artificial body parts.
The specimens include Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey, named for Dante’s guides in The Divine Comedy.
The book’s fragmentary style stems from Martel’s “ongoing rebellion against rationality,” he explains. Gone are the pen and the typewriter. His creative medium is the computer screen, where the words float freely and are written, deleted, cut and pasted instantly, just as in his imagination.
He experiments with literary conventions and limits. Although, he says, “if you read John Dos Passos and William Faulkner, you see that I have invented nothing.”
Martel is a post-typographical novelist of an emerging 21st-century Canadian canon, born the year after Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy defined typographical humankind locked in lineal thought patterns.
In Martel’s crafting of Beatrice and Virgil as a cautionary allegory, Henry the novelist does not “get” the evil of Henry the taxidermist, just as the Jews did not at first see the evil in Hitler.
Martel says that “for great evil to happen, there must be thinkers to formulate hate, actors to act on their message and the circumstances to bring them together.” Therein hangs the tale of Beatrice and Virgil.
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