Fans of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi will be pleased to learn that his new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, is partly a tale of animals, just like Pi. But their pleasure may end there. What made Pi so remarkable — a seamless narrative, a sense of wonder, that mind-tingling ending — is absent in the new book, an allegorical exploration of the Holocaust that stumbles on its own admirable ambition.
The protagonist here is Henry L’Hôte, an author who, having earned worldwide fame with his second novel, bears more than a passing resemblance to Martel himself. When Henry’s publishers reject his convoluted idea for a book on the Holocaust, he gives up writing and passes the time answering fan mail. One letter leads him to a local taxidermist, an octogenarian who has spent decades toiling over a play about a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey? (Virgil) that suffer ghastly persecution by humans. Now he needs Henry’s help to finish the work. Henry agrees, and soon discovers that this gruff, emotionless preserver of dead animals is attempting the very thing his publishers told him he could not: represent the Holocaust through means other than historical realism. In the taxidermist’s hands, the anthropomorphized Beatrice and Virgil become stand-ins for the 6 million Jews murdered during World War II.
But the old man doesn’t do it very gracefully. Nor, for that matter, does Martel with Beatrice and Virgil as a whole. There are some lovely passages, such as when a starving Virgil imagines that fingertips on the skin of a coveted pear sound like ”the diamond of a record player entering a groove.” But too often, those moments are lost in the clutter of what reads more like an elaborate writing exercise than a fully realized novel. The endless descriptions and abundant literary allusions (Dante, Diderot, and Beckett, to name a few) are extremely self-conscious. (In his amateur theater group, Henry plays the Jewish lead in Nathan the Wise, an 18th-century drama about religious tolerance. So much for subtlety.) And while the grand finale of an ending does offer a flicker of excitement, it teeters too close to B-movie theatrics to offer genuine satisfaction. C+