Shock the Monkey

A novel of violence and silence from the author of Life of Pi

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Geoff Howe

Yann Martel at home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil begins with a dreary little piece of self-referential play. Henry, the hero, is a novelist trying to write a follow-up to his prize winning first book. Similarly, Martel's Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize in 2002, and now he's produced a follow-up in the form of Beatrice and Virgil. This kind of metafictional loop has become a convention as well-worn as those it was meant to explode. Somebody needs to come up with a fifth wall to break.

Henry is artistically stymied: his publishers don't get his new book, which is about the Holocaust, and even he seems a little fuzzy about what its point is. So he bails on writing altogether. He moves to a new city, gets a dog and a cat, gets his wife pregnant and generally forgets about books entirely — until he receives a strange fan letter from an elderly, misanthropic taxidermist who's working on a play and wants Henry's help.

Martel writes with a smooth, almost stoned detachment, cool to the touch, which gives a distant, unreal feeling to a story that's already dangerously weird and abstract. The taxidermist's play turns out to be a Beckettian affair about a monkey and a donkey, Beatrice and Virgil, who live on a giant shirt (yes, a shirt). Beatrice and Virgil are lost, shell-shocked survivors of a massacre of animals by humans, an "abomination" they can refer to only as "the Horrors." Thus the Holocaust, denied entrance at the front door, sneaks in through the window.

Beatrice and Virgil is a true oddity. Its subject is violence and the impossibility of describing it: violence is an atrocity that immolates language itself, turns us into dumb animals and brute flesh. But Martel's story is so arbitrary and oblique that its savage truth almost misses making itself felt. There may be no way to approach the unspeakable other than sneaking up on it with a winding story like Henry's and toylike nonsense characters like Beatrice and Virgil. But Beatrice and Virgil falls victim to its own paradox: speaking of the unspeakable is a dangerous game that a writer must play to lose. The trick, as Beckett might have said, lies in losing in just the right way.