Beatrice and Virgil
by Yan Martel
Apparently, people either love this book or hate it... and most people hate it. Surprisingly (because I was on a string of audio books I disliked) I didn't hate it. I think the reason I liked it was because I earread it in my car. After listening to a bit, I was able to leave my car and go about my daily work/errands. That gave me time to step away and think about it instead of reading it (a somewhat short book) all at once or in a short period of time.
There were of course times where I said "what the HECK is going on here?" or "this is just stupid!" But when I stepped away and let the ideas set in... when I tried to come up with a reason I thought it was stupid... I couldn't justify it. And then, somewhere in there, things started making complete sense. It was like magic. Suddenly, magically, the idea of a donkey and a howler monkey who live on a very big striped shirt and survived the horrors.... just made sense. I know, right? Who'd have thought it? Even now, typing it up, it looks absurd upon the page. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the sewing kit... the more I loved it. And of course the method was so painfully transparent--a writer who wrote an unconventional story is writing an unconventional story about a writer who wrote an unconventional fiction/nonfiction flip book who crosses path with a writer who wrote an unconventional play. And the second writer obviously is the voice of the reader- full of curiosity and disbelief. He is us... we are him. We're skeptical and slightly horrified. We're frequently reminded about the differences between humans and animals... and how that translates to the holocaust where people were treated like animals. And, yet, with main characters who are animals who survived the horrors--it could relate to the current environmental struggles, to current ethnic clensing, to the holocaust. The writer(s) want to find a new way to talk about this subject... and I think they found it in a somewhat absurd but universal sort of way.
I wasn't sure I liked the book at all when I started it... but I kept reading the back of the audio book and I knew I didn't want to give up until I at least met Beatrice and Virgil. And then, during the first scene with them, when Virgil is describing a pear to Beatrice, I was captivated. By all accounts, if I had been watching a play with that passage, I probably would have been asleep in a minute. It felt like pages and pages and pages before they even got to the TASTE of the pear. And, yet, I couldn't get enough of it. It was such fascinating description. I really loved Beatrice and Virgil. The author was, as I said, me (the reader). And the taxidermist was freaky. I was occasionally comfortable around him, but then he would say something blunt or wouldn't say anything and I would get worried again.
I thought I had one more disc after the one I was listening to. I thought I was on the second-to-last disc. But then... then it ended with such shocking force I actually screamed. I parked my car at work and listened to the last 5 minutes in shock. I scrambled, looking for the CD case, and couldn't believe this was the end. I knew there was no way it could continue, given the characters. But I wasn't prepared for such... horrors. It reminded me a bit of The Reader, seeing it from that side of things. The most powerful thing is that we're left never knowing exactly who the taxidermist was. We're left with lots of questions... and our only answer is what is in the play--a play that no longer exists, except in our memories.
This book made me think about things I'd never thought of before. It didn't come right out and challenge. And it didn't bring some new insight or anything. But it did make me think more than almost any other book has in a long time. It's made me think about the relationship that writing and art has with culture and history, makes me think about what responsibility writing has. And it made me think about the holocaust. In fact, after I finished the book, I went into work where I was completely in a daze. And I talked with my coworker who had been to a concentration camp when she was in Prague recently. And we talked about how it's impossible to believe humans can do that sort of thing to each other. So that makes it almost impossible to really talk about it. Which is why something like the sewing kit makes so much sense in my head now. And why the end of the book had me in tears and unable to function for a while at the beginning of my work day.
It got better with time. But now, even thinking about that ending... it hits me again. Those games. Just hearing them was so powerful. I am sure they would have been different if I'd read them. But hearing them, unable to pause them or stop them from happening, it hit me so hard. I HIGHLY recommend this book in audio format, though maybe not book format.
But when you have to ask the big, ironic question... when you have to ask: what is this book about? The only answer I have is that this book is about us. This book can be about everything.