At its core, Beatrice and Virgil is a book about the Holocaust. Yet, in some ways, similar to most of Life of Pi, it is imaginative and child-like enough to be read as a bedtime story. “Dark but divine,” is what I believe the USA Today called it. The sheer imaginative quality of the story is stunning. Martel has again proved his mastery of story-telling, intertwining philosophical concepts, animals, and emotions in a beautiful way.
But to say that this book is entirely about the Holocaust would be wrong. It is about where we turn when we have nowhere else to turn in the midst of crisis. It is about the aftermath of crisis, how we speak of it and how it arises in our thoughts. It is about conjuring up painful images of the past and coming to grips with it. And it is a book about healing and change.
All of this being said, I don’t believe that this novel will ever become widely popular. It is far too eccentric to be warmly received by a large crowd. Yet its eccentrics speak of deep, careful, and philosophical thought. If it were a musical album, it would fit nicely into the indie shelf. Or maybe even right next to Radiohead’s OK Computer, one of those albums that has a weird track stuck right in the middle of it, each word and sound meticulously calculated to invoke a certain feeling from the listener. The same mass audience that craves three minute fit-for-radio songs will not be interested in the details of a mad taxidermist nor of parallels drawn between the Holocaust and the slaughter of animals.
So why did Martel tackle a tough subject like this? Because it is what he does best–taking a difficult subject and presenting it to the reader with all of its ugliness, in essence saying to the reader, “Here it is. This is death. This is loss, pain, crisis, humility, shame. All of those things that humans have been despicably capable of. But this story illustrates why you should be happy. I won’t ignore death nor evil, but neither will it bring me down.”
For me, this line is why Martel wrote this novel: “Life and death live and die in exactly the same spot, the body. It is from there that both babies and cancer are born. To ignore death, then, is to ignore life.”