Having had great success with one animal fable, 2002’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi, Martel has gone one better: an animal fable in the shape of a play within a play. Beatrice and Virgil is the story of Henry, a novelist who believes that more ‘poetic licence’ should be taken with the Holocaust. Conveniently, he meets a strange taxidermist also named Henry, who has written a play – featuring a donkey, Beatrice, and a howler monkey, Virgil – that tackles precisely that subject.
Martel is principally interested in how we can talk about something like the Holocaust. Is art the right way to bear witness? The problem is that his human characters, who dominate the book by volume if not by emotional interest, seem flat and lifeless compared with the animals, in which he excels. Also, much of the fable’s imagery seems clunkingly obvious, and is then spelled out for the reader anyway. Even if that’s the point – that simplicity is the only honest response to true evil – it remains a fairly grating way to pass a few hours.
Individually, Virgil and Beatrice are deeply affecting creations, pathetic in every sense, but the novel surrounding them is less than the sum of its parts. Martel may need to master more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak.