Beat­rice and Virgil

Yann Mar­tel

By – August 25, 2011

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.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ran­dom House Canada

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 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?

Beat­rice & Virgil