Spiegel and Grau, 201, 197 pages
Beatrice and Virgil seems to be the overzealous result of a parlor game, the sort of game in which each player must choose three words at random from a hat and compose a story using all three ideas. Yann Martel chose “taxidermy,” “Holocaust,” and “theatre.”
Martel’s main character, Henry, is a novelist between jobs. His most recent pitch, a “flip book” about the Holocaust which is half novel and half essay, has been booed by his editors so he takes a hiatus in a big city where he starts taking clarinet lessons, working in a chocolate shop, acting in local community theatre, and answering mail from fans of his first famous novel. One letter comes from an address in town, so Henry decides to check it out. At the appropriate address, Henry is startled by an unusual sight. “An okapi was looking up the street at him, its head tilted forward and turned his way, as if it were expecting him.” No, it’s not a fantasy story with talking animals roaming the streets of big cities. Henry’s correspondent is a taxidermist, proprietor of Okapi Taxidermy. Against his better judgment, as he will learn in about 130 pages, Henry enters the shop.
An acquaintanceship (friendship would be too strong a word) follows in which Henry slowly hears fragments of a play the taxidermist is writing called Beatrice and Virgil. The play features a donkey and a howler monkey, both of which are stuffed and mounted in the taxidermist’s workshop but come to life in the pages of a script. Henry realizes, over time, that the taxidermist’s script is covertly about the Holocaust, a strange coincidence considering his own recently-failed creative endeavor about the same topic. Henry attempts to help the taxidermist improve his story, trying to make sense of the man who displays almost no personality and the strange story that has become his life’s work.
The play begins innocently enough, with Virgil describing to Beatrice the qualities of a pear, a fruit she’s never seen. Martel’s best writing in the whole novel is on these seven pages, so I won’t spoil it by recounting the passage here. As the play goes on, though, it becomes more abstract. Beatrice and Virgil are sitting by a tree, trying to find ways to describe what’s happened to them without actually saying what’s happened to them. Apparently, there’s been some sort of animal annihilation which these two managed to escape. Their deep grief and clinging fear are matched by their stiff detachment which enables them to create symbols for their experiences without actually discussing it emotionally.
The taxidermist says much about his play in the course of his conversations with Henry. At least one comment is decidedly untrue: “They’re exactly the same at the end of the play as they were at the beginning,” he says of his heroes. While the bulk of the play is static – with Beatrice and Virgil chatting by a lone tree – the end is overwhelmingly dramatic and altering. And Henry’s relationship with the taxidermist follows the same pattern: bland and routine throughout the novel until a final climactic end. Neither Beatrice and Virgil nor Henry and the taxidermist are the same at the end as they were at the beginning.
In the end, after everything has gone terribly wrong, the frustrated reader is not sad as much as relieved. Perhaps, though, the reader echoes Henry’s sadness. His one regret is “not having saved Beatrice and Virgil. He missed them with an ache that made itself felt even years later.” Despite the frustration of reading a novel that doesn’t quite go anywhere, that tries blunderingly to combine disparate topics, and that includes gratuitous carnage, the sensitive reader’s heart will ache, in the end, for Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the magnificent howler monkey.