The critical reception of Beatrice and Virgil - Yann Martel's follow-up to his Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi - has been almost unanimously negative and often vitriolic. Whether this is a reaction to his winning the Booker in the first place or to the somewhat solipsistic subject-matter of this second novel is debatable.
Martel's prose is frequently sententious and pretentious, his metaphorical world childishly transparent, misleadingly transluscent or irritatingly opaque. At times it appears that he wants us to know everything he has ever read. He borrows and parodies. But Martel is neither an Angela Carter, re-examining childhood narratives, nor a Joyce, understanding afresh fictional contexts. Anyone familiar with Waiting for Godot will find shameful the Beckett in Beatrice and Virgil.
A few set pieces, none the less - the description of the pear and the twelve concluding moral 'games' - are important and profound pieces of English. But the thinly concealed holocaust metaphor 'A 20th-Century Shirt', and the seemingly inevitable revelation of the playwright-manqué taxidermist as an ageing war-criminal, make this an uneven and a less than satisfying piece. It is difficult to decide whether Martel is being self-mocking, satirical or ironically deconstructivist. What is not in doubt is that Martel is a writer who should not be dismissed. Perhaps fifty years from now he will join the canon of the great writers of the twenty-first century.
The unabridged reading, by Mark Bramhall, is without doubt a masterpiece of the audiobook art. He invests so much character and fullness to the protagonists that the novel succeeds often where the words in print seem to fail. This is a book which cannot be ignored and the audiobook once again invests an arguably lesser work with greater worth.
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