Feature

Author of the week: Yann Martel

A donkey and a monkey are the talking animals that feature prominently in Yann Martel’s metafictional allegory about the Holocaust, Beatrice and Virgil.

The author of Life of Pi may well lose some fans with his latest novel, said Alexandra Alter in The Wall Street Journal. Talking animals feature prominently in Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, just as they did in his charming 2001 best-seller. Beatrice is a donkey and Virgil a monkey. Yet Martel’s first book since Pi is not another philo­sophical adventure story but a tangled metafictional allegory about the Holocaust. These animals turn out to be characters in a play that a successful novelist is reading as a favor to a taxidermist he barely knows. “I threw everything I could at it to try to write about the Holocaust without being literal,” Martel says. Why? He believes that too little fiction has been written about the event, and “we have to entrust history to art.”

The most straightforward story line in Beatrice and Virgil is the one about the novelist, said John Barber in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The character is struggling, as Martel did, to follow up a major overnight success with an ambitious Holocaust novel. Like Martel, he at one point decides that his book should be half essay and half novel, and that readers should have to flip the book over once they’ve read through one approach or the other. Martel, however, never suffered the embarrassment of having his manuscript rejected by his editors, as the character in Beatrice and Virgil does. “Because of the success of Life of Pi,” he says, “they would have printed an excerpt of the phone book.”

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