For weeks I have rued the ending of the television show Lost because the final ten minutes were the worst ten minutes of the one hundred plus hours of the series. I recently read the book Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel which had the exact opposite effect. It was dry and slow as you slogged through two hundred pages of obscure literary references and the scribblings of a madman, but it had an ending which punched you in the gut and forces you to immediately read the book again to uncover what you missed.
The author, Yann Martel, first came to my attention several years ago with his masterpiece, Life of Pi. That novel told the tale of an Indian boy named Pi who found himself shipwrecked with a tiger. It was told as a true story with an uplifting ending that can be seen in two different lights. A religious person will see the final chapter as the strongest possible argument for faith. An atheist will view it as affirmation that religion is the art of fooling oneself.
Beatrice and Virgil takes up where Life of Pi ended. It is a sequel, but not of the characters in the novel. Instead it is a sequel about the author of the book. Yann changes his name to Henry. He is happily married and enjoying the riches from a book featuring animals. He has struggled to write a follow up for his masterpiece and has decided to forsake writing. But then he receives the strangest of fan mail. It is a short story by Flaubert with various passages highlighted and excerpts from a play featuring a donkey named Beatrice and Virgil the monkey. The play bears striking resemblance to Waiting For Godot and has a note which reads, “I read your book and much admire it. I need your help.” Without giving much away taxidermy, the Holocaust, and animal extinction weigh heavily on this book.
In the many years between the publication of Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil, Martel has seemed to become heavily influenced by my favorite writer, Paul Auster. Beatrice and Virgil immerses itself with Auster’s touchstones. Stories within stories, writers dealing with writing, the alienation from feeling more of a relationship with the strange and new rather than the familiar are all present. The magic of the world and how humanity can make the best of the worst situation isn’t present as it was in Martel’s earlier novel. This is about the dark side of a species which can kill off the dodo bird, flood the oceans with oil, and still find time for a game of Scrabble.