Now that we are on the other side of my son’s graduation, I can work through my thoughts on Yann Martel’s latest book. To be honest, however, I really don’t know what to think of Beatrice and Virgil. I absolutely loved Life of Pi – the story has stuck with me for years. Maybe that will be true of Beatrice and Virgil, too, but I don’t know that I want it to stick with me.
Maybe that’s what Martel was going for. Obviously, he wants to evoke some extremely uncomfortable emotion within us and then just leave us there. As far as I can tell, we are taken into Hell and that’s where we remain.
At the beginning of the book, the main character, Henry, is wanting to publish a flip book. One side is an essay, the other side fiction. It is an attempt to present the holocaust in a new way. The two will merge into one another showing that there really is no ending or beginning. The ending of the essay morphs into the beginning of the fictional story. And the ending of the fictional story morphs into the beginning of the essay. Unsurprisingly, his publishers don’t like it because they don’t think they can sell that sort of ambiguity. They want something much more definite. Something with a point so that they can market the book as being about something in specific. It’s too difficult to market something that merges into itself and never has an actual beginning or end.
I watched a documentary about a woman who had been one of Dr. Mengele’s twins. She had discovered the power of forgiveness and was able to forgive the Nazis. But when it came to the Palestinians, forgiveness was a little more difficult to come by – especially when she was sitting face to face with several who were blaming her race for afflicting great harm on them.
That’s kind of the way it goes, isn’t it? We’re horrified with what we see “out there” and are unwilling to point the finger back at ourselves. We can feel good about forgiving those we believe have hurt us. It gives us power. But of what use is this power if we can’t likewise forgive those who hold us accountable for their pain? When we say we forgive, what exactly does that mean? That we get to feel superior? Personally, I think forgiveness is meant to humble us. Not make us feel superior to other human beings.
What I kept thinking the entire time I was reading Beatrice and Virgil, since it was about two stuffed animals who symbolize the Holocaust, is that the vast majority of us, despite our feelings of outrage against what happened to the Jews, are inadvertently creating unfathomable horrors against animals by our demand for cheap animal products. In the name of efficiency, the Food Industry not only drives our demand, it does the unthinkable in order to meet it. If most of us were to face the reality of how poultry, pork, fish and beef have become so incredibly inexpensive, I can’t help but think the demand would drop immediately. Nobody would be OK with how horribly these animals are treated just so we can have cheap food at dinner. The only reason we allow it is because we intentionally look the other way. And even if horrible things are happening to these animals, they don’t really matter, anyway.
Beatrice and Virgil are are characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Virgil is an actual Roman Poet that Dante greatly admired and possibly thought of as a mentor. Dante used Virgil as the guide through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Beatrice was Dante’s great unrequited love. He revered her in the deepest sense but marriages were arranged in his society so he could not be with her. She also died very young. In Divine Comedy, Dante is reunited with her and it is Beatrice that shows him around Paradise.
Martel turns them into a donkey and a howler monkey. He says he came up with the names because in Divine Comedy, Dante has lost his way morally. He is confused, he is lost, he is falling into sin and he wants to come back to the straight way. The only way to come back to the straight way is by traveling through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Just as Dante’s guides are Virgil and Beatrice, they are Henry’s (and our) guides through the Holocaust .
One reviewer said she had to go take a shower after completing it because it made her feel dirty. I totally understand what she is talking about. I felt dirty after reading the book because it made humanity seem like some sort of horrible, tainted horror that can offer no way out.
Beatrice and Virgil were characters who had been created by a taxidermist. They weren’t “real”. And they were the only characters that were remotely likable. I didn’t like Henry or his wife at all. The taxidermist was at least fascinating, but I didn’t like him, either. It’s been 25 years since I read Divine Comedy, but I vaguely recall Dante being somewhat likable.
I also didn’t particularly appreciate the ending, probably because I didn’t get it. I guess it represented the Inferno. But hadn’t “heaven” essentially been created by the creator of that Inferno? Perhaps that was the significance of trying to create the flip book with one part merging into the other so that there is no obvious beginning or end? No definitive line between fact and fiction?
Maybe if I read it a second time, it would make better sense? But I have no desire to put myself through that again!