Beatrice and Virgil

Spiegel & Grau  2010

Yann Martel’s new novel delivers a hefty punch-in-the gut and when you catch your breath and your vision clears, the landscape around you has irrevocably changed. The ground beneath your feet is a black and white striped shirt, concentration-camp style, and wild animals are the repository of all the world’s wisdom, pathos, and glory.

Henry, an author who has struggled to write a book on the Holocaust following a successful earlier novel featuring wild animals (yes, it sounds suspiciously like Martel, himself) meets another Henry, a taxidermist who is writing a play and wants help with articulation and language. The play is an absurdist-Beckety-sort-ofthing of spare magnificence which speaks as eloquently between its lines as it does in its finely wrought speeches. The play’s protagonists are a donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil with allusions to Dante undisguised. The animals bear life’s suffering with philosophical forbearance, with courage, patience, and hope. The few humans portrayed are nothing more or less than bestial. At issue here are history and revision, theater and reality, compassion and cruelty, loyalty and betrayal, the law of the jungle and the civilization of man.

How do we find a vocabulary for the Holocaust, Martel asks. We need to speak about it to remember it and transmit the memories on but if language is inadequate for the task, where do we turn? In this subtle and most unusual treatment of the Holocaust lies great wit and wisdom and an oblique approach to the subject that makes us sit up and take notice anew.

Discussion Questions


1. What is Beatrice & Virgil about?

2. Why do you think Martel decided to name both of his characters "Henry"?

3. Discuss the characters of Beatrice and Virgil. Why might Martel have chosen them to be a donkey and a howler monkey, and why might he have chosen to name these characters after Dante's guides through heaven and purgatory?

4. What do you think of Henry's original idea for his book? Do you agree with him that the Holocaust needs to be remembered in different ways, beyond the confines of "historical realism"? Why, or why not?

5. How would you compare Beatrice & Virgil to Life of Pi? How do Yann Martel's aims in the two novels differ, and how does he go about achieving them?

6. Close to the start of the book, Henry (the writer) says, "A book is a part of speech. At the heart of mine is an incredibly upsetting event that can survive only in dialogue" (p. 12). What does this mean? How does his comment inform the book we are reading?

7. Describe the role Flaubert's story "The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator" plays in the novel.

8. How do you explain Henry's wife's reaction to the taxidermist and his workshop?

9. How do you feel about the play "A 20th-Century Shirt"? Could it be performed? What role does it play in the book?

10. What moral challenges does Beatrice & Virgil present the reader with? What does it leave you thinking about?

11. How is writing like or unlike taxidermy in the book?

12. What role do Erasmus and Mendelssohn play in the novel?

13. What is the significance of 68 Nowolipki Street?

14. How is Henry changed by the events of the novel? How does this relate to Beatrice and Virgil having "no reason to change" (p. 151) over the course of their play?

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