Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1100
In Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel tells the story of Henry L’Hôte, a successful author, and his struggles to help a taxidermist write a play. The taxidermist’s play is about a donkey and a monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively. The names are an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which the hero is guided through heaven and hell. Henry is helping the taxidermist, but he is also striving to write a book about the Holocaust.
The hero, Henry, strongly recalls the author, Yann Martel. Both have recently experienced tremendous success on the back of one novel. Like Life of Pi, Martel’s book, Henry’s novel is about animals and zoos. Since then, Henry has been searching for an idea for a new novel, and he has settled on the subject of the Holocaust. His primary response to the way stories are told about the Holocaust is that they are always written in a way that is realistic and historical. For example, there are no Holocaust Westerns. In Henry’s eyes, this amounts to silencing the human imagination. When people read about the Holocaust, they read about a historical truth, but they rarely read about an imaginative truth. However, a metaphorical truth is no less true, even if it is not real.
Henry’s new book is unorthodox both in its approach and in its design. The book is one part fiction and one part nonfiction, the latter half taking the form of an extended essay. He wonders which part should come first. Henry reflects that fiction addresses life more directly because it allows for a fuller range of human experience to be brought into the reader’s mind, but that is not to say that the essay is unimportant. Henry decides to publish a flip-book: there is no front or back, so readers can enter the book however they choose. Furthermore, there is no end to the book because both sides show the cover. The more he thinks about it, the more Henry is attracted to the ideas of his new book.
Unfortunately, Henry’s editor and publisher are not so pleased. They fly Henry to London and broach the subject of his new book over lunch. Henry’s editor has invited a bookseller and a historian along. The bookseller informs Henry that the flip-book will be nearly impossible to sell, and the historian simply confronts Henry with the question “What is your book about?” Henry outlines his ideas about the Holocaust, but is unable to say anything more about his book. Devastated, Henry returns home and proposes to his wife that they move to a new city.
They move, though the city is not specified. Henry’s wife, who is a nurse, finds work quickly. Henry does not have a visa and lives abroad as a “ghost,” but soon he establishes a life for himself. He begins taking clarinet lessons and joins an amateur acting troupe. He also finds work as a barista at a chocolateria, though he is only paid in shares. He and his wife get a cat and a dog, which they name Mendelsohn and Erasmus—allusions to a famous architect and a celebrated humanist. Before long, his wife shares that she is pregnant.
Throughout this time, Henry is happy, though he is not writing. He primarily engages with his writing career through letters he receives from his audience. One letter is particularly unusual. The reader has included a short story, “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier,” by Gustave Flaubert. Henry’s reader has highlighted passages that outline the violence the hero of Flaubert’s novel has done to animals. However, the hero later finds redemption and joins Jesus in Heaven. The reader has also sent an excerpt from a play about Beatrice and Virgil. The play seems quite light in its dialogue, reminding Henry of Samuel Beckett. Beatrice and Virgil are on a path, and Virgil attempts to explain what a pear is to his companion. Neither of them have a pear—or any other food to eat. When Henry notes that his reader lives nearby, he resolves to go see him. He looks again at the signature but can only make out the name “Henry.”
The man is a tall, gaunt, taxidermist—“Henry the taxidermist,” as Henry refers to him. Henry the author sees the taxidermist’s shop as a world of stories. He and the taxidermist work briefly on the play, which is be about a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice. The taxidermist has strong views on nature and taxidermy. Once, people relied on taxidermists to bring the forest into their living rooms, but they no longer do. Now the forest is dying, as is the business of taxidermy. Although Henry agrees to help with the play, the taxidermist refuses to let Henry read the entire text.
Henry is drawn to the play, and he finds inspiration through it. He also finds the taxidermist interesting, though everyone else finds him repulsive or creepy. The two continue to work on the play. One night, Henry learns that Beatrice and Virgil are left on a path and are stuck dealing with the loss of two thirds of the animal kingdom; they refer to this event as “The Horrors.” They also come up with ways to begin to talk about the tragedy of the Horrors. For a long time, Henry suspects that the play might be about the Holocaust; later, he wakes in the night, sure that the entire play is in fact about the Holocaust because of a clear allusion to the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum. He verifies his hunch on the Internet and soon goes to confront the taxidermist.
When Henry next meets the taxidermist, he discovers that the mysterious man is actually a Nazi collaborator. His goal is to find redemption without having to feel remorse, recalling Flaubert’s story. When Henry confronts the taxidermist, the man pulls out a blunt knife and stabs Henry. Henry escapes to the street, and the last thing he sees is the taxidermist’s shop burning.
When the novel ends, Henry’s son is born and he is writing a new story, but he will always feel a suspicion and fear now that he has been wounded. Still, he has finally begun writing again. He first writes a series of games that ask things like a “joke is about your suffering and your loss. What is your reaction?” before he goes on to borrow heavily from his experiences with the taxidermist and, of course, Beatrice and Virgil.
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