Thursday, May 27, 2010

A donkey, a howler monkey, a taxidermist, and an author

Several years ago, a friend ordered me to read The Life of Pirecipient of the 2002 Man Booker Prize.  Obediently, I did, and was, at turns, amused, confused, pensive, shocked, and horrified while reading the book.  I was thoroughly impressed with author Yann Martel's writing, so when another friend recently alerted me to the release of Beatrice and Virgil, Martel's new book, I immediately reserved a copy.

Brevity has never been my strong suit, but trying to write a pithy summary of anything Martel writes is even more challenging than usual.  Still, I'll try:  Beatrice and Virgil is about Henry, an author who bears a striking similarity to Martel himself, from the subject and style of his last book to son of the character having the same name as Martel's son.  Henry meets a reclusive taxidermist, who has written a play about a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil) named after the guides to heaven and hell, respectively, in Dante's InfernoHenry finds himself fascinated both by the taxidermist and his play, even when everyone around him, including and especially his wife, is terrified of the the man. 

At times, the book pulled me in simply through the lines of the play (although Beatrice and Virgil often sounded -- unintentionally, no doubt -- like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but what can you expect from a donkey and a monkey?).  I didn't find it as compelling as The Life of Pi, nor was its conclusion as shocking or thought-provoking as the earlier book.  Unfortunately, it read, to me, as if the author was slyly winking at his audience through much of the book with an implied, "Did you catch it?  Pretty clever, huh?"  It's worth reading for fans of Martel, but if you're looking to an introduction to his writing, stick with The Life of Pi.

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