May 3, 2011

[Books] Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and VirgilEvery now and then I try to venture out of my comfort zone of science fiction and fantasy books in order to try and discover new authors that might strike my fancy. Sometimes I base it off the synopsis on the back of the cover. Sometimes I select titles based on how reviewers compare them to books that I already like. Any yes, sometimes I go by the title of the book alone.

That's sort of how I started reading Yann Martel's books. I started with Life of Pi mainly because I expected a comical book with animals as metaphorical characters or something. Of course I was totally wrong and it turned out to be a very serious survival piece quite literally about how a young boy survives being stranded on a lifeboat with wild animals. Not very happy stuff, but it was still a good read.

So with this experience in hand, I figured that I was more prepared to dive into another of his books with better expectations in mind. Of course I was still wrong, and I wonder if this is one of those cases when I don't seem to be a good fit for this particular author's writing.

Canadian Booker prize-winning author Yann Mart...Image via WikipediaBeatrice and Virgil is an allegorical tale written by Yann Martel. It was published in April 2010 and the book is said to have one of the highest advances for any Canadian novel.

The book follows around author Henry whose last book was an very unique flip-book that tries to tackle the Holocaust in two ways. The book managed a decent amount of success and now he's struggling to write a new novel when he's encumbered by a serious case of writer's block. It is around this time while he works as a waiter at a cafe that he receives a letter from a fan asking for his help with a manuscript.

After some searching, Henry finally meets Henry, the taxidermist who is a less than sociable fellow who is working on a strange play. His story involves a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil and the two are somehow on the run in some strange land. But the play is really a doorway into something else entirely and both Henrys find themselves working together to work through the story.

Now this book was remarkably short - about 200 pages in length compared to how long Life of Pi was. But despite the relatively shorter length, I felt the book was horribly dragging and without a clear direction for where it wanted to go. We constantly thrown back and forth between the stories involving Henry, our protagonist, and the stranger universe of Beatrice and Virgil. It might have helped if Beatrice and Virgil's allegorical tale had more narrative flow to it but instead we just get disjointed snippets that try to sound a lot more impressive than they really are.

In fact, the whole book seems to be trying to do that - sound smarter than it actually is. There's a rather haphazard way that the book tries to throw around overly lofty concepts and vague metaphors and symbolism but in the end it doesn't seem like the author knew what he wanted to do with all that. It just keeps going on and on and as much as you keep hoping to find some semblance of meaning, you'll be surprised to find yourself at the end of the book with nothing to show for it.

To be fair, the book does feature what may be the world's best and most detailed description of a pear ever done by animals. I mean wow, that introductory scene of the play where Beatrice and Virgil discuss the wonders of a pear would make you think it's the most fantastic fruit in the world. And I don't particularly like pears!

But sadly, the rest of the book does not have the same level of literary elevation. Instead we have some pretty bad characterization, under-developed players and a really weird and aimless plot. If there's some greater meaning in this story that I'm missing, then apologize. I don't like to take my books too seriously but I know that I'm not dumb enough to miss any true plot of relevance. The book is just a meandering mess with a supposed twist at the end that does not provide any true fulfillment for the reader. I just felt even more weirded out and I wonder why I picked up the book in the first place.

Beatrice and Virgil is a bloated novella that has convinced me to more carefully reconsider reading any future Yann Martel books. It gets 1.5 ridiculous discussions between Beatrice and Virgil on a giant shirt out of a possible 5.

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