Review: Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

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Beatrice and Virgil (2010) by Yann Martel

Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is a brilliantly written work containing two stories: a novel and a play. The play is gradually revealed through the novel, and together they effectively convey the principle theme of the work, which is that of human brutality brought into the sphere of ‘normality’.
The protagonist, a novelist named Henry, wishes to portray the Holocaust in a different way. The novel explores this theme through the work of Henry. However, Henry’s first attempt is rejected and he loses faith in the idea. Several years late he meets a taxidermist who is writing a play about two characters named Beatrice and Virgil. Throughout the course of the novel scenes from the play are revealed and we learn that Beatrice and Virgil are in a situation closely resembling the Holocaust, and the play is about their methods of dealing with it. Martel uses this device to give his protagonist a small dose of the horror and emotional scarring left by another human being’s mindless brutality. This gives Henry a deeper understanding of the effect of such an experience, and leaves the reader at the heart of the matter of the Holocaust: simple human brutality and mindless cruelty.
The essential purpose of Beatrice and Virgil is to portray the Holocaust in a different way, but also to leave the reader with a sense of the raw and painful nature of such an event. The seamless blend of writing mediums effectively conveys the theme of human brutality brought into the sphere of the ‘normality’ of everyday life. However, the author is betrayed by his use of detail to convey significant information. His writing falls down where he has placed essential information in scattered details, leaving the reader unsure of the motivation behind certain actions. In other words, if the reader is not careful the significance of certain actions in the climax of the novel are missed entirely and the ending must be re-read to be fully understood. Besides this flaw in the execution of the climax, this novel is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in off-beat depictions of the Holocaust, or of Martel’s trademark style: rich and a little unsettling.

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