Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Beatrice and Virgil

Yann Martel's novel Beatrice and Virgil is an allegory that represents the Holocaust using animal characters. The novel is about writer's block and has the character of the writer Henry L'Hote talking about his writing experiences and also of his encounter with a taxidermist called Henry. This metafictional novel has it all in terms of its several inserted genres including a play, an essay, a brochure, a short story, extracts from Flaubert's short story "The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator" , a poem in the form of a list and a set of imaginary situations called Games for Gustav. These inserted genres were written by the taxidermist Henry and later recreated by the writer Henry while on the hospital bed after being stabbed by the taxidermist Henry.

Just as in Life of Pi, Martel manages to create more than one dimension of the story and the story flits back between the story of animal extinction and that of the horrible massacre of the Jews during the Holocaust. Martel, through the voice of the writer Henry remembers the six million Jews who were killed during this historical event of genocide. As survivor testimonies show those who survived were no better than those who perished. Martel brings in echoes of several survivor testimonies including that of Primo Levi.

The animal characters Beatrice and Virgil are named after the poet Dante's guides through heaven and hell in The Divine Comedy, the medieval allegory about the state of the soul. From the innumerable allusions to several allegories, it can be deduced that the allegorical form was deliberately chosen by Martel. The allegory commonly spoke of the state of the soul and also gave lessons about humanity's place in the whole scheme of things. Here, Martel brings in an allegory that can be read in both ways and due to the metafictional nature of the novel, there are clues as to read the allegory in terms of animal slaughter and racial purification. Using this allegory, Martel blurs the line between cruelty to animals and cruelty to fellow-beings, showing a belief in the unity of all beings in the universe and an exhortation to live and let live.

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