Why You Should Read Beatrice and Virgil

‎”Just as music is noise that makes sense, a painting is colour that makes sense, so a story is life that makes sense.” -Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil

I don’t remember exactly when I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, but I remember that I loved it.  I remember getting to the end and thinking that while I wasn’t entirely sure exactly what the book was about, I absolutely loved it.  It’s been a number of years since I read it and I can’t even remember most of the major events of the plot at this point, but it’s one of those books where just the mention of it, or a glimpse of the front cover reminds me of why I love literature.

Because of all of this, I was incredibly excited when Beatrice and Virgil came out.  You’d think I would have gone out and read it right away, but I didn’t.  I tend to be pretty cheap and don’t like buying hard cover books.  I’m also incredibly strange (as well as a marketer’s dream), so if I have a choice between editions of a book I tend to pick the one I like the look and feel of the best, unless it’s just ridiculously expensive.  This only applies to books originally written in English; if it’s translated from Russian, I always go with the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky edition, which fortunately for me usually ends up being the coolest looking one anyway.

So off topic.  Sorry.

Anyway, I didn’t want to buy the hardback edition of Beatrice and Virgil.  When it finally came out in paperback, I was in the middle of the school year, reading young adult literature and books for my small group, and other things had caught my interest in the meantime (most of those books are still on my to-read shelf…that’s just how I roll).  Finally, Beatrice and Virgil was on the buy-2, get-1-free table with a couple of other books I had been wanting, so I bought it.

And boy am I glad I did.  Yann Martel is a brilliant storyteller.  I’m not going to tell you about the plot, mostly because I don’t think I can.  It is about a writer named Henry, but not really.  It is about a taxidermist also named Henry, but not really.  It is about the Holocaust, but not really.  It is about a howler monkey and a donkey, but not really.  Mostly, it is about human (and animal) nature, about how we make sense of the world, and about the stories we tell with both our lives and our words.

And Yann Martel is brilliant with words.  I think the quote I included at the beginning of this post is pure genius.  As soon as I read it, I had to stop reading and write it down.  There is also a passage where he talks about how the characteristics of different languages make them useful for different things:

“Colonialism is a terrible bane for a people upon whom it is imposed, but a blessing for a language.  English’s drive to exploit the new and the alien, its zeal in robbing words from other languages, its incapacity to feel qualms over the matter, its museum-size over-abundance of vocabulary, its shoulder-shrug approach to spelling, its don’t-worry-be-happy concern for grammar – the result was a language whose colour and wealth Henry loved.  In his entirely personal experience of them, English was jazz music, German was classical music, French was ecclesiastical music, and Spanish was the music from the streets.  Which is to say, stab his heart and it would bleed French, slice his brain open and its convolutions would be lined with English and German, and touch his hands and they would feel Spanish.  But all this, as an aside.”

Martel goes from this straight back into his description of Henry the writer.  There are no chapter breaks in the book and very few natural stopping points at all.  The format flows seamlessly between novel, short story, and play and concludes with a gut-wrenching segment entitled “Games for Gustav.”  As with Life of Pi, I’m not entirely sure what I just read, but I know that it was wonderful.  I may not be able to give a concise summary of the book, but it is about things that are true.

Martel is not putting words together artfully just for the sake of it, though.  His purpose is clear almost from the very beginning – to demonstrate to the world that it is not enough to address things like the Holocaust just with nonfiction or fact-based fiction.  Imaginative fiction has a role to play as well and if it is done right, it can be just as powerful as the memoirs we are familiar with, and maybe even more so.  In my opinion, Yann Martel does it right.

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  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

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