Literary Criticism and Significance
Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil was released to less than positive reviews. Some papers reported that Martel was paid millions for the publishing rights based on the massive success of his previous novel, Life of Pi. That novel not only became an international success but also won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. In contrast, Beatrice and Virgil has to date won no awards and has received little acclaim. Critics tend to praise Martel for his prose while criticizing the ethics behind his Holocaust novel. At best, Beatrice and Virgil has been understood as an ambitious failure.
Many critics were baffled by Beatrice and Virgil, particularly by the lack of any clear or valuable goal behind Martel’s concerns over the representation of the Holocaust in narrative. Writing for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani suggests that the book is “every bit as misconceived and offensive as his earlier book was fetching.” Kakutani argues that by comparing the Holocaust to dying animal species, Martel “has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust.” Kakutani’s argument is echoed by Ray Charles of the Washington Post, who points out Martel’s
dubious assumption that people ought to take more poetic license with the Holocaust.
They wonder how Martel could fail to see the obvious flaws in his plan.
Critics consistently interpret Martel’s use of the frame narrative as a ploy to escape from the trap of profiting from the Holocaust with his story. Instead, the allegory takes place within “A 20th Century Shirt,” a play that is contextualized within the larger body of a novel. If Henry is a stand-in for Martel, at least the play is actually written by a Nazi collaborator who ultimately dies in a fire, suggesting that Martel has distanced himself from the taxidermist. However, James Lasdun of The Guardian interprets this frame narrative as a series of “self-cancelling feints and alibis” and Martel’s novel
ends up thinking about neither Jews nor animals, but using the extermination of both to think about, of all things, writer’s block.
Martel’s attempts to tackle an important subject have largely been understood as an offensive and indulgent triviality.
However, other critics are, if not enthusiastic about the project, at least more forgiving of Martel’s ambitions. Charles suggests that Martel’s
awkward mixture of realism and fairy-tale abstraction only gets more annoying as the story continues.
However, Charles acknowledges that Martel’s attempt to
invent some way to talk about horrors that defy...
(The entire section is 628 words.)