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From Yann Martel, A Novel Of Atrocity And Taxidermy

Canadian author Yann Martel's second novel, Life of Pi -- a parable in which an Indian zookeeper's son named Pi Patel and a 450-pound Bengal tiger manage to survive for 227 days on a lifeboat -- was an international phenomenon, winning Britain's 2002 Man Booker award and selling millions of copies worldwide.

With his follow-up, Beatrice and Virgil, Martel is back with another parable involving animals, this time with mixed results.

Henry, the narrator, is an author not unlike Martel, with a recent literary success, and worldwide fans, and a desire to write about the Holocaust in a new way (he mentions Orwell's Animal Farm as one model). He spends five years writing a "flip book" on this subject -- a book in which one half is fiction, the other half nonfiction, with two front covers. After the book is rejected, Henry stops writing and moves with his wife from Canada to Europe. A fan's letter lures him to the shop of a sinister taxidermist, also named Henry, who asks his help to complete a play. It's called A 20th Century Shirt and turns out to be about an event called "the Horrors" and how it affected Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey, both stuffed and on display in the shop.

Over time, Henry concludes that the taxidermist "is using the Holocaust to speak of the extermination of animal life. ... He was seeing the tragic fate of animals through the tragic fate of Jews. The Holocaust as allegory." In short, he is doing what Henry had tried to do in his flip book.

Martel uses riddles, games, literary allusions, chunks of text (a Flaubert short story, for instance) and deceptively simple language to trace his narrator's journey into collaboration and confrontation with evil. But he's not as convincing as he was in Life of Pi.

The dialogue between the increasingly anguished Beatrice and Virgil, describing their ordeals, is sophisticated and moving -- indeed, humanly artful. (Martel mentions Diderot and Beckett in passing.) And the book's ending, which moves out of animal parable back into human factual references to the Holocaust, is truly disturbing. But Martel oversimplifies and sets up questionable premises throughout.

At one point Virgil asks Beatrice the question Martel ponders throughout the novel: "How are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it's over?" Beatrice and Virgil is not the answer. Martel's latest is an ambitious, troubling, but ultimately misguided effort.

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Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.
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