Howling for Horror: A Review of Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel
By Margaret Curtis, PhD
Famous for creating the Life of Pi, author Yann Martel continues his unique handling of the animal fantasy genre in Beatrice and Virgil. Nevertheless, his donkey heroine and howler monkey hero in this new novel follow the pioneering of the most famous fantasy/science fiction masters: Aesop, Apuleius, Rudyard Kipling, Pierre Boulle, and Bernard Malamud.
Martel adds this twist to tales of hell and havoc: He excoriates man for murdering two-thirds of the animals once on earth, and compares this massacre to the Nazis’ destruction of six million Jews. Furthermore, he parallels writer’s block to a period of savage self-denial, a time when an author would not know himself if he met himself in a dead letter office where he may belong.
The character of Virgil as a howler monkey repeatedly alludes to the arguably most famous art of the twentieth century: the beat poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg and the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch. In fact, Martel’s work is so heavily allusive that weaving its separate elements together becomes the acknowledged challenge of this novel, which heads in multiple directions.
The novel’s central figure and central intelligence—no pun intended—is so conflicted over writing fiction versus nonfiction that he offers his publisher a flip-flop classic. (Why didn’t somebody mention this masterpiece during the last flip-flop election? (9_9)) When flip-floppers turn to sandals, howler monkeys become pure howlers. Martel’s genius lies in simian comedy!
This author’s wide open chosen specialty relies on the dead pan angst of works such as Waiting for Godot, too, as well as the minimalism of One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof. This is comedy of the absurd, an esoteric field which Martel pulls off as if he were telling stories for fun when he isn’t raging over human cruelty to their equally elegant animal brothers and sisters.
Martel chooses his cause and characters wisely. He ranks at the forefront of writers challenging stereotypes both in style and form. Beatrice and Virgil inherently remind readers as well that the metamorphoses of great literature continue. Beatrice led Dante to Heaven; Virgil was the voice of Reason. What could be more valuable now?