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Ron Charles reviews "Beatrice and Virgil," by Booker Prize-winner Yann Martel

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"Virgil: We've done nothing wrong! But speaking of which, what day is it today?

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"Beatrice: Saturday.

"Virgil: I thought it was Friday.

"Beatrice: Maybe it's Sunday.

"Virgil: I think it's Tuesday.

"Beatrice: Is it possibly Monday?

"Virgil: Perhaps it's Wednesday.

"Beatrice: It must be Thursday then.

"Virgil: God help us.

"(Pause)

"Virgil: I can't take much more of this."

[Insert own joke here.]

There's no pleasure in dismissing this book; Martel clearly has set out in all sincerity to commemorate the Holocaust and consider its effect on victims, survivors and perpetrators. His portrayal of Beatrice and Virgil struggling to invent some way to talk about horrors that defy language is evocative and potentially interesting. But as the story continues, allusions to Nazism, race laws and concentration camps grow more clunky and obvious. The play culminates in a stomach-turning scene of torture and murder that produces visceral impact by substituting melodrama for insight.

And what can we possibly do with the last dozen pages, each of which contains a brief emotional sucker-punch posed as an ethical dilemma? Consider this: "Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter's head?"

I'm sorry, but this allegory is no "Animal Farm" or "Watership Down." It's a cloying episode of "Winnie the Pooh" In Which Piglet and Rabbit Are Hacked Apart and Eaten. Martel's attempt to represent 6 million Jews with a pleasant donkey and a friendly monkey is just well-meaning sentimentality dressed up with postmodern doodads. "Beatrice and Virgil" does little to bring us closer to appreciating the plight of those victims or to fathoming the cruelty of their murderers. Whatever "artful metaphor" Martel began with, it ends up skinned and stuffed -- not alive, not even lifelike.

Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/roncharles.


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