The Existential Beatrice and Virgil

The book jacket describes this as a story of a monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice. And it is. Kind of. Henry is an author desperately in love with his Holocaust flip book idea. He wants to create one of the first fiction accounts of the Holocaust because, as he says “surely, amidst the texts that related what happened, those vital and necessary diaries, memoirs and histories, there was a spot for the imagination's commentary,” and he wants to balance this with an essay. Neither can stand alone, but they are not truly linked, so he suggests putting them in the same cover, back to back. The idea is wildly rejected. He then meets a taxidermist, also named Henry. Taxidermist Henry is writing a play about two creatures he stuffed and named Beatrice and Virgil.

The character of author Henry seems to be Martel himself; bestseller list book, difficulties creating a passionate strong second work, a unique experience, birth of said creative second work. He meets taxidermy Henry and together the two Henrys seem to function as the flip book author Henry wished to publish; creative story meets factual balance and grounding. Martel writes about an author writing a flip book while he stitches his own flip book into one piece. The creative Holocaust story is told in taxidermist Henry’s play about Beatrice and Virgil and the reader is grounded to reality through author Henry’s life. The ending of Beatrice and Virgil could illustrate Martel’s thoughts on how he must proceed in creating his fictional Holocaust work. The fiction must force itself into reality and reality must give it pass. Beatrice and Virgil reads like the making of Beatrice and Virgil, which I believe is what creates that feeling of torn through a wormhole.

When I closed this book, the first thing I thought of was a monument in Berlin entitled “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” It’s a blunt and blatant title, but aside from that, it makes no assumptions about the Holocaust experience. It is a collection of cement blocks arranged in rows and rows. They start at your feet, barely inches high, and then soar to eight feet. A person is meant to walk between the blank gray walls and the shifting corridors and just think about the Holocaust. There is no statement of what the Holocaust is, was, caused, or could have been. It simply stands to force people to be confronted with this moment in history.

I take you to this monument because it is the closest reference I have to explain Beatrice and Virgil. I can’t discuss this as a traditional fiction piece because it doesn’t function as one. I was bored through the majority of this book; there’s no action, no character development, no real plot. But closing the book, it does cause one to think about the Holocaust, the “Horrors,” and how there are no words. It is this uncomfortable state of mind that one can’t express, that I believe was Martel’s goal. You’re thinking about the Holocaust; it’s pain and victims, it’s senselessness and creation of powerlessness. Perhaps this is what it was like to experience the Holocaust. There are no words or reason. There are only musing and near misses and laundry lists that attempt to explain the feeling. If it is, then Martel is a genius.

For those who are fans of Life of Pi, be prepared; the two works do not share a very common reading experience. It’s a heavier read that asks more from its reader than its predecessor. My advice: do not read this as a novel. Embrace it as an artistic experience. Focus on the emotions created as you take in the words. Do not try to make sense of the world of the dual Henrys and instead let your mind “feel” Beatrice and Virgil’s experience.

Excerpt from Beatrice and Virgil:
BEATRICE: What name will it have?
VIRGIL: That's a good question.
BEATRICE: The Terror?
VIRGIL: Sounds like something done quickly, involving running and panting. Not enough calculation to it. Besides, it's been used before.
BEATRICE: The Tohu-bohu?
VIRGIL: Sounds like a dairy-free dessert.
BEATRICE: The Horror?
VIRGIL: That's stronger.
BEATRICE: Even better: the Horrors, plural but used in a singular construction, the curve of the s like a ladle in a soup from hell, serving up the unthinkable and the unimaginable, the catastrophic and the searing, the terror and the tohu-bohu.
VIRGIL: We'll call it the Horrors.
BEATRICE: So, how are we going to talk about the Horrors?
                                                                                              Courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Heidi Durrow Interview

Durrow discusses her novel "The Girl Who Fell From The Sky," winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, her experiences being biracial and bendy straws.

In one moment, Rachel contemplates her conflict with her dual race and how one always seems to win out: “I don’t want being Danish to be something I can put on and take off. I don’t want the Danish in me to be something time makes me leave behind.” Do you feel as if you can equally embrace both races or is it as Rachel worries; that one gets left behind?

More and more as I get older, I feel like I am able to embrace the totality of my identity. But growing up I didn’t have that feeling. Like any kid, I wanted to fit in. Being both black and Danish was pretty different—and beyond that inexplicable. I just started saying what was easy for other people to hear for a long time. Now, I’ve given up being polite or making other people comfortable and so I just speak my truth.

How did you decide on this narration style for the book, traveling between character perspectives and time shifts? How did you pick the characters whose perspective you were going to adopt?

I started writing the book from Rachel’s perspective and realized soon that I needed other voices to tell the story because she is an unreliable narrator. And by that I mean that she’s got stories she’s unable or unwilling to tell at first, but the reader needs to know. The characters came about very organically. The character Jamie/Brick came about almost by accident—I thought that he was going to be a character in an unrelated story, but then realized no, he was a witness. Laronne’s character came about because I wanted someone to advocate for Nella. Each character is able to tell a little bit more of the story.

The time shifts were more deliberate. I wanted to show how much the tragedy defines not just Rachel but those surrounding her. And so in the first part of the book Rachel’s narrative goes through many years and the other characters live in the intensity of the tragedy –just a couple of weeks pass.

While it is not as explicit, there is the underlying issue of substance abuse and it impacts many of the character’s lives. Do you believe Rachel will end up “hereditary” like her mother and fall into addiction?

Ah, are you thinking sequel? Hee hee. Well, you know, I think I can say without spoiling the book that there is more hope for Rachel at the end than not. (How’s that for dodging a question?) But yes, alcoholism is an important thread to the story. I wanted to write a story in which this issue was dealt with – alcoholism destroys people but it also destroys families. But then also beyond that I wanted to depict characters who are dealing with alcoholism but who are not bad people—they are struggling people—they are people with struggles and in that way there is hope.

This novel functions both as a discussion of race as well as an exploration of healing. Did you have a primary subject in mind when you wrote it?

I think the book necessarily operates on both levels—and I did have that in mind when I was writing it. It’s been healing for me to share it!

This novel won the distinguished Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. Do you feel that this honor changes the way readers approach the story?

I hope it allows readers to recognize that the book is operating as what I hope is a good and compelling story, but also as a book that challenges assumptions they may have, and most importantly offers them new questions to have about the world. I think that is the best thing about the Bellwether Prize—that it signals that the book raises important questions for us as a citizenry that can put us into a meaningful dialogue with each other.

What has your experience as a full-time writer been? What advice or recommendations would you have to other writers?

My experience as a full-time writer has been brief—I sure do hope it continues! And it has been amazing. What an absolute blessing that I get to do what I love most in the world every day and share stories that mean something to me with others. I have to pinch myself every morning to remember that it is all real. My advice to other writers working on getting the book out in the world: keep writing, and don’t give up. You just need the one gatekeeper to greenlight a project. The difficulty is in finding that one gatekeeper, but if you keep looking you are certain to find him or her.

What is one fun random fact about you?

I drink coffee (really anything not clear or light) from a bendy straw.

Visit Heidi Durrow at Facebook or her site for tour dates and Mixed Chicks Chat podcast on her biracial experience.
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This work by H.E. Saunders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.