The allegory for human memory and the power of the written word wrapped inside Beatrice And Virgil is insufferable. That’s a shame, considering the potential of the story that Life Of Pi author Yann Martel intended to deliver it. This short but ephemera-stuffed novel about a successful yet misunderstood author reveals its agenda with a flourish that’s worthy of a villain in a Dan Brown novel, and about as believable.
Stewing in self-pity after his agent and publisher reject his manuscript for a book about the Holocaust, Martel stand-in Henry returns to the happier tasks of acting in community theater and answering his reader mail. Then he comes across a fragment of Flaubert and a few pages of dialogue starring two characters whose namesakes are from The Divine Comedy. Struck by its violence and precision of language, he tracks down the author, an aging taxidermist also named Henry who says he was inspired by a donkey and a howler monkey in his collection, and asks for help finishing the story. Could his book be the very tome the blocked author has been trying to write? What a coincidence! All that remains is for Martel to find a way for Henry to appropriate his new friend’s work without guilt.
Beatrice And Virgil’s lofty tone betrays Martel’s conviction that his nested story will resonate with readers as it does for the first Henry, but none of its fragments transcend the mystery of its origin. As the taxidermist, apparently impatient with being upstaged by stuffed animals, is revealed to be more than just an eccentric with an expensive hobby, his role in the story shrinks to a footnote in Henry’s testimony of his salvation as an author. The novel makes the same last-ditch attempt at significance that Henry makes in his story’s conclusion; where Life Of Pi was content to end ambiguously, Beatrice And Virgil overexplains, then extends the analogy with an epilogue professed to be one of Henry’s latest works, explicitly spelling out his new revelation.
Early on, Henry dismisses his wife’s concerns about his new friend by labeling her as someone who “had long ago lost interest in the Holocaust”; by the end of Beatrice And Virgil, as Martel’s fictional stand-in realizes his obtuseness, he makes it his mission to punish the world for this oversight. In this black-and-white world, between his Mary Sue-esque main character and his patently ridiculous ending, he tells a story that no one will remember hearing.