Friday, April 23, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel

Yann Martel's puzzling and disturbing new novel vibrates just a little--a frisson for the mind--quite exactly as though someone has walked over one's grave. Martel takes on big issues not because he is unafraid, but perhaps because he is. But gently, o critic, lest you silence a voice in full throat. It is a voice we need to nurture since it mirrors us, not in raging journalistic torrents which belittle us, nor in hypocritical religious diatribe meant to shame us, but in stories meant to reflect, instruct, and sustain us.

Ostensibly the book is about an author in search of a subject. We come across two writers named Henry, and two animals--dead animals--named Beatrice and Virgil. The story is deceptively simple--mostly the reading of a play with few characters. But references abound which make the mind whirl and stop and pick and think and wish and fear see the novel is not really just a novel, the play is not just a play, and the playwright is not a playwright at all. In the end, a howl, or a braying--"frank and tragic as a sob"--would be a very appropriate reaction.

I am left with questions which I will ponder with relish in the days to come. I welcome fellow travellers to unravel the mysteries with me, of the onelongword evilivingroomanerroneously, [sic] dramas, the odd hand gesture somewhat resembling a Nazi salute, a second hand gesture, and very mysteriously, tennis lessons. I have no problem with the ludicrousness of this list, nor do I have a problem with its ambiguity. There is little enough laughter in the full drama of the story--I would feel it too bleak to live otherwise. I believe the author means for us to think things through for ourselves. He's given us the signposts: Dante, Shakespeare, Diderot, Flaubert, Chagall, Mozart, among others. You see, it is not so very hard after all, and what a beautiful way to go. Kudos, Martel. Best wishes always.

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