From the Publisher
Henry's second novel, written, like his first, under a
pen name, had done well.
Yann Martel's astonishing new novel begins with a successful writer
attempting to publish his latest book, made up of a novel and an
essay. Henry plans for it to be a "flip book" that the reader can
start at either end, reading the novel or the essay first, because
both pieces are equally concerned with representations of the
Holocaust. His aim is to give the most horrifying of tragedies "a
new choice of stories," in order that it be remembered anew and in
more than one way.
But no one is sympathetic to his provocative idea. What is your
book about? his editor repeatedly asks. Should it be
placed in the fiction section of a bookstore or with the
non-fiction books? a bookseller asks. And where will the
barcode go? To them, Henry's book is an unpublishable
disaster. Faced with severe and categorical rejection, Henry gives
up hope. He abandons writing, moves with his wife to a foreign
city, joins a community theatre, becomes a waiter in a
chocolatería. But then he receives a package containing a
scene from a play, photocopies from a short story by Flaubert -
about a man who hunts animals down relentlessly - and a short note:
"I need your help."
Intrigued, Henry tracks down his correspondent, and finds himself
in a strange part of the city, walking past a stuffed okapi into a
taxidermist's workshop. The taxidermist - also named Henry - says
he has been working on his play, A 20th-Century
Shirt, for most of his life, but now he needs Henry's help
to describe his characters: the play's protagonists are a stuffed
donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively,
and Henry's successful book was in part about animals. He wants
help to finish his play and, we may suspect, free himself from it.
And though his new acquaintance is austere, abrupt and almost
unearthly, Henry the writer is drawn more and more deeply into
Henry the taxidermist's uncompromising world.
The same goes for the reader. The more we read of the play within
the novel, the more we find out about the lives of Beatrice and
Virgil - in a series of initially funny, and then increasingly
harrowing dialogues - the more troubling their story becomes. As we
are drawn deeper into their disturbing moral fable, the
relationship between the two faltering writers named Henry becomes
more and more complex until it can only be resolved in an
explosive, unexpected catastrophe.
Though Beatrice & Virgil is
initially as wry and engaging as anything Yann Martel has written,
this book gradually grows into something more, a shattering and
ultimately transfixing work that asks searching questions about the
nature of our understanding of history, the meaning of suffering
and the value of art. Together it is a pioneeringly
original and profoundly moving accomplishment, one that meets
Kafka's description of what a book should be: the axe for the
frozen sea within us.
About the Author
The award-winning author of four previous books, the most recent of
which is What Is Stephen Harper Reading?, Yann
Martel was born in Spain in 1963. He studied philosophy at Trent
University, worked at odd jobs - tree planter, dishwasher, security
guard - and travelled widely before turning to writing. He was
awarded the Journey Prize for the title story in The Facts
Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. His second novel,
Life of Pi, won the 2002 Man Booker, among other
Yann Martel lives in Saskatoon with the writer Alice Kuipers and
1. What is Beatrice & Virgil about?
2. Why do you think Martel decided to name both of his
3. Discuss the characters of Beatrice and Virgil. Why might
Martel have chosen them to be a donkey and a howler monkey, and why
might he have chosen to name these characters after Dante''s guides
through heaven and purgatory?
4. What do you think of Henry''s original idea for his book? Do
you agree with him that the Holocaust needs to be remembered in
different ways, beyond the confines of "historical realism"? Why,
or why not?
5. How would you compare Beatrice & Virgil
to Life of Pi? How do Yann Martel''s aims in the
two novels differ, and how does he go about achieving them?
6. Close to the start of the book, Henry (the writer) says, "A
book is a part of speech. At the heart of mine is an incredibly
upsetting event that can survive only in dialogue" (p. 12). What
does this mean? How does his comment inform the book we are
7. Describe the role Flaubert''s story "The Legend of Saint
Julian Hospitator" plays in the novel.
8. How do you explain Henry''s wife''s reaction to the
taxidermist and his workshop?
9. How do you feel about the play "A 20th-Century Shirt"? Could
it be performed? What role does it play in the book?
10. What moral challenges does Beatrice &
Virgil present the reader with? What does it leave you
11. How is writing like or unlike taxidermy in the book?
12. What role do Erasmus and Mendelssohn play in the novel?
13. What is the significance of 68 Nowolipki Street?
14. How is Henry changed by the events of the novel? How does
this relate to Beatrice and Virgil having "no reason to change" (p.
151) over the course of their play?