The story with the red herrings: Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil

Beatrice & Virgil, by Yann Martel, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 213 pages 

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was about the life of a boy named Pi, especially 227 days he spent on a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker.  It contained disquisitions on faith, zoos, and anthropomorphism, and it briefly blurred the line between autobiography and fiction, but all in service of the simple story of a boy on a boat with a big cat.

Anthropocentrism, and the assumption that stories about actual animals are for children (see left), led some readers to see Richard Parker as a human concept in cat’s clothing: chaos, violence, wildness.  As Pi, anticipating these readings, put it, “we look at an animal and see a mirror.”  But sometimes a tiger is just a tiger, or, again in Pi’s words, “an animal is an animal, essentially and practically removed from us.”  Richard Parker, to Martel’s great credit, was as fully tiger as his boatmate was fully human, and as unknowable as his real-life kin.  The complexity, the reality of both characters, human and non-human, made a literal reading of Pi far more compelling than an allegorical one.

Life of Pi’s conclusion, too, was most interesting, and most challenging, when read literally.  “The story with the animals is the better story” was not, on this reading, a trite celebration of the imagination as coping mechanism.  Rather, it was an argument for the conservation of endangered species.  Species like the Borneo orang-utan, expected to be extinct in the next ten to thirty years; like the Grant zebra, the most abundant species of zebra – and the only one not endangered – but nevertheless extirpated now from Burundi and, likely, Angola; like the spotted hyena, threatened in nine countries and extirpated from Algeria and Lesotho; and, of course, like the Bengal tiger, which accounts for about half of the 2,500-4,000 tigers that remain in the wild, down from 100,000 a century ago and declining fast.

Two years after Pi was published, another book with a tiger on its cover made a similar argument.  In Monster of God, David Quammen asked readers to contemplate “the psychological, mythic, and spiritual dimensions (as well as the ecological implications)” of the ancient relationship between humans and “alpha predators” – occasional maneaters – like tigers.  Quammen suggested these animals keep us “acutely aware of our membership within the natural world,” they’ve “played an important role in shaping the way our species construes its own place in creation,” they “challenge us to transcendent fits of courage . . . They allow us to recollect our limitations.  They keep us company” – all of which might be said of Richard Parker and his relationship with Pi.  Quammen predicted that “the last wild, viable, free-ranging population of big flesh-eaters” would disappear by 2150, and with it the last fictional correlatives of such fauna.  In other words, by 2150, books like Life of Pi will be impossible.  The story with these kinds of animals, the better story, will go extinct.

Species extinction is ostensibly a concern in Beatrice & Virgil, too.  Here, Martel’s barely blurred stand-in, Henry L’Hote, meets another Henry, a taxidermist and playwright.  The latter’s life’s work, A 20th-Century Shirt, is about a donkey and a howler monkey, Beatrice and Virgil, respectively.  Lengthy excerpts from this play are interspersed with the story of the Henrys’ relationship.  In these excerpts, Beatrice and Virgil discuss fruit, faith, and the persecution they’ve experienced, and they attempt to answer “the key question of the play”: “How are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it’s over?”  Obviously, neither Beatrice nor Virgil is correlative with any actual donkeys or monkeys; like Art Spiegelman’s cats and mice and George Orwell’s livestock, they’re humans in animal attire.  More specifically, they’re representatives of Jews in Nazi Germany or occupied Poland.

Nevertheless, the taxidermist claims his play, like Martel’s previous novel, is about “The animals!  They’re two-thirds dead . . . In quantity and variety, put together, two thirds of all animals have been exterminated, wiped out forever.  My play is about this . . . irreparable abomination.”  His taxidermy is about this, too: it’s a dying business because “No one wants animals anymore . . . The wild ones, the real ones, they’re all going, if not already gone”; “I wanted to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been done.  That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness.”

L’Hote, charitably, attempts to read the taxidermist’s play the way the taxidermist wants him to.  He convinces himself that the taxidermist is “using the Holocaust to speak of the extermination of animal life.  Doomed creatures that could not speak for themselves were being given the voice of a most articulate people who had been similarly doomed.  He was seeing the tragic fate of animals through the tragic fate of Jews.”

This interpretation, however, simply doesn’t work.  A 20th-Century Shirt is not for a moment about non-humans.  Beatrice and Virgil call their persecution “The Horrors”; their play takes place on a striped shirt; Virgil describes his sudden exile from his community by government edict (“BEWARE!  Large prehensile-tailed monkey with grotesque jaw, often with attempt at concealment by means of jowl beard . . . Untrustworthy”); all of this, as well as allusions to Emmanuel Ringelblum, the Nazi salute, and Auschwitz, points readers toward the Holocaust, and there is no corresponding movement from the Holocaust to species extinction. 

Beatrice & Virgil, too, is clearly about the Holocaust.  Beneath its dust jacket, it’s also striped;  L’Hote approaches Hitler’s reign as he approaches the taxidermist’s shop – “1919 . . . 1923 . . . 1929 . . . 1933.  The very address he was looking for!”; L’Hote himself has written an unpublishable book about the Holocaust; etc.   There are actual animals here: L’Hote adopts a cat and dog, the taxidermist is allowed to pontificate about his trade and about the absence of non-humans from everyday life, and his shop contains “a shared culture of animalness . . . a community.”  Again, however, all of this points readers toward the Holocaust, all of this is in service of an exploration of how to represent the Holocaust.  The taxidermist and Martel both use animals in trying to tell the story of the Holocaust, and not vice versa.  L’Hote’s suggestion to the contrary is baffling. 

L’Hote himself is similarly baffled by a short story by Flaubert that the taxidermist sends to him, along with a note and a scene from A 20th-Century Shirt, in initiating their relationship.  In “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” the title character becomes obsessed with hunting; he finally gives it up after being cursed by a stag whose family, whose entire community, he has destroyed; he nevertheless ends up killing his parents, as dictated by the stag’s curse; full of remorse, he devotes himself to others, and is eventually redeemed by Christ.  To L’Hote, “the murder of the animals made no sense.  It found no resolution, no reckoning, within the framework of the story . . . the slaughter, a wished-for extinction of animals, is a senseless orgy about which Julian’s savior has not a single word to say . . . it leaves burning and unredeemed an outrage against animals.”

Could Martel have intended Beatrice & Virgil to be as “baffling and unsatisfying” to his readers as “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator” is to L’Hote?  Is it about “the animals” insofar as it reminds us that, when it comes to those left outside the human community, those we don’t define as persons, we can get away with anything, including saying not a single word about what might metaphorically be described as their genocide?  Or is this a charitable attempt to make sense of what is simply a red herring in a largely incoherent novel?

All of this is to say that Beatrice & Virgil is, indeed, unsatisfying.  What’s ultimately most frustrating, however, is that none of its characters, human or non-human, come close to showing as much life as a single member of the cast of Life of Pi.  In fact, they’re rarely as vivid as the stuffed skins in the taxidermist’s menagerie.  The novel’s philosophical or political shortcomings are not, in other words, redeemed by its personalities.  Martel is reportedly now working on a novel about three chimpanzees.  One hopes that they have more in common with Pi and Richard Parker – that is, more in common with their non-fictional correlatives – than with Virgil or Beatrice.

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