After reading and being blown away by Life of Pi, I was compelled to give this book a go. However, my reaction was towards this was filled with ambivalence.
The protagonist of the story is a slightly pretentious Henry. He is a published author overcoming writer’s block by replying to fan mail. This is all his got going on for him really. He lacks depth and interest, making the first 60 pages or so drag. Then the other character is introduced through the form of fan mail asking for Henry’s help in writing a play. This character is a taxidermist – a creepy, distant man preserving the lives of animals. He isn’t particularly great either but his ghoulish nature piques some interest. His play is involving two animals, a stuffed donkey (Beatrice) and an equally deceased howler monkey (Virgil).
Essentially bit by bit, in no chronological order, the play is unravelled. It is a nonsensical, artistic attempt at portraying the holocaust in a contemporary and controversial fashion. The animals have seemingly pointless conversations which make no sense and only hinder the progression of the story (if you can even call it that.) This book is only 173 pages long and only begins to make sense after the first 150 pages. By this point, I have kept reading because I’m hoping for the weirdness to take shape and I’m so far along it would seem pointless to give up. The last 23 pages conclude the story in a fast and violent sweep with tone altering from eerie to downright graphic as it proclaims itself to be an allegory of the holocaust.
After spending the time reading the book, I felt betrayed and deprived of what I was expecting to be a much better conclusion that what it was. The action happened all at once, so much so by the time my mind was figuring out what was going on the book had ended, leaving me with a sense of dissatisfaction. I was hoping the weirdness would add to the meaning and become clear yet I was left scratching my head. The reasons for me actually liking it were appreciating what Martel was attempting to do, even if I don’t feel he did achieve it. Also, it was so different and odd it does stick in your mind as months after, I’m still questioning if I truly understood it and it makes me question my own intelligence. You know when you don’t quite get something and you’re not sure if this feeling is unequivocal or if you’re just skipped over some important parts – this is how I feel about Beatrice and Virgil.