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May 2, 2010

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Complex and simple ideas lost in trickery

YANN Martel's second novel, "Life of Pi," won him much acclaim, many readers and the 2002 Man Booker Prize. One reason for the book's appeal was a story easily reduced to a one-line pitch: An Indian boy is stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Martel's latest novel demonstrates the same gift for vivid description and wholehearted feeling, but it's a lot more resistant to summary. "Beatrice and Virgil" is allusive, teasing, fragmentary.

The central character, Henry, is a novelist who has won acclaim, many readers and awards for his second novel, which featured wild animals. But when his next book, an attempt to find a new way of writing about the Holocaust, is rejected, he stops writing and moves to a new city.

One day he receives a strange piece of fan mail: a photo-copy of Flaubert's short story "The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator" °?- about a saint who in his youth enjoys massacring wild animals - accompanied by an enigmatic scrap of dialogue between two characters called Beatrice and Virgil. Enclosed in the package is a plea for Henry's help.

When he tracks down the source of this mysterious communication, Henry discovers a taxidermist's shop. And Beatrice and Virgil - a donkey and a red howler monkey - turn out to be two specimens in the workshop behind the showroom. The taxidermist is trying to write a play that consists mostly of conversations between the monkey and the donkey, circling around events they refer to as "the Horrors."

According to the taxidermist, this phrase describes the extermination of animals, but Henry comes to believe that, like himself, the taxidermist is trying to describe the Nazis' campaign to eliminate the Jews. As more of the play is revealed, there are increasing intimations of atrocity.

Early on, Henry mentions that he uses animals in his fiction because he believes his readers won't overload them with irony. But the function of Beatrice and Virgil is more complex than that. Among other things, they seem to represent Martel's approach to his theme, his wish to combine the mischievous energy of the monkey and the perseverance of the donkey.

"Beatrice and Virgil" is a box of tricks, filled with historical and literary references. In "The Divine Comedy," Beatrice and Virgil are Dante's guides to paradise and hell. Visiting the taxidermist for the first time, Henry counts off house numbers - 1919, 1923, 1929, 1933 - that could be a timeline in the rise of Nazism.

The novel is also deeply self-referential: the reader is plainly invited to identify Henry with Martel, but the taxidermist's first name is also Henry. And the time scheme is disjointed, with narratives within narratives. At times, it reads like an attempt to flesh out a dictionary definition of "postmodernism."

Alongside all this trickiness, Martel places truisms and straightforward, unanalyzed emotions. He wants to testify both to the evils of the Holocaust and to "the simple joy" of creative endeavors even as he acknowledges the difficulty of describing these subjects without resorting to cliche.

Although his ambition is admirable, the literary complexity and simplicity of feeling Martel is aiming for don't comfortably mesh.


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