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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.