Saturday, April 24, 2010

Beatrice & Virgil

The question was, How would you summarize your book in one sentence?
The author, Yann Martel said, "Writer meets taxidermist meets Holocaust."
However, I just finished reading it [Beatrice & Virgil] and I know that Mr. Martel must have winced at the question itself.
Oh, how we love to summarize. How we long to describe.
Oh, how we love to define. To encapsulate.
We love to tell.
But this, my friends, is the definitive [<-- no pun intended] novel of the limitations of language.
The wild thing about Beatrice and Virgil, the one thing I would say to all readers [and here I am clarifying the author's own summation] -- it is not ABOUT writing, or taxidermy, or the Holocaust… Yann Martel is not the new-and-improved Jerzy Kosinski or Primo Levi -- he's the modern day Jeremiah of LANGUAGE AIN'T ENOUGH.
This book is about -- I CANNOT SAY IT IN A WAY YOU CAN KNOW IT.

Henry is a struggling writer, trying to write something better than his second novel, which was immensely successful. His editors, his publishers, are trying to steer him toward a re-write of his current work. The thing is straddling too tightly the fence that separates fiction from history.
"What is your book about?" they keep asking.

It's a good question.
It's similar to the one asked of Yann Martel, above.
How would you summarize the thing?

Henry meets up with another author, whose day-job is Taxidermist.
The taxidermist is also at a bit of a stalemate in his own book, about a talking donkey and monkey. [Beatrice & Virgil]. He wants Henry's help, especially in the specific realm of description.
As Henry engages in this enterprise, he gets more than he bargained for. In the end, he believes more fully in the taxidermist's "story" than the original author does. The reader, the reader that is turning the last page of Yann Martel's book -- understands that there are no words to transfer certain things [like the Holocaust] from one person to another.
You would have had to have been there, to know it.
To tell it? To say the words?
You would have to have been a donkey. Or perhaps -- a monkey.
Not a person. Not the most erudite survivor, that now, tries to do so.

This is a book that I refuse to lend to friends, because I fear I will never see it again.
And, like breath, like breathing -- I want to do it, want to experience it, again.

Get it! --> GET IT!


Anonymous said...

It must have been somewhat frightening to write this review - which is quite right-on - because this is a book that is so beyond summary - so far beyond anything that can touch what the thing is - that it would be like telling someone why you love him.
No matter whether you wrote a love letter or a perfect sonnet or a film documentary starring your lover, or a symphony in his honor -- all efforts would fall short.

I. loved. this. book.

It is one of the best books I have read in the past year - or EVER. It defies description.
A sacred text.
It is no one thing.
Not since I read Phillip Pullman have I been so involved with not only the characters in a book but the action.

In many ways it is a painful book to read. The action. The central metaphor (the holocaust). The knowledge that you have only a few pages left.
There certainly things in this book that you can tell someone about [the list] and explain to them, but they have to experience it in order to get it.
The reviews are mixed. Way way mixed. But here is what I say: just trust cipriano, blog fans.
Has he ever lied to you?

Even though I have said a bunch of words's ineffable.

Beth said...

You've convinced me.
Are you sure you won't lend it? ;)