Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel - review by Sam Leith

Sam Leith

The Donkey & the Howler-Monkey

Beatrice and Virgil


Canongate 166pp £14.99

Once upon a time, there was a Canadian writer who was pretty much unknown. Then he wrote his second novel, won a bunch of big prizes, and lost two years of his life to the business of being a literary superstar. He didn’t let the fame affect him, though he liked the touring and the speaking and the hearing from readers who had been moved by his work.

Then, when all that died off, he sat down and spent five years on his next project. He wrote a novel about the Holocaust; he wanted to publish it in tandem with an essay he had written about the difficulties of representing the Holocaust in fiction. The two books would be published in one volume, back to back – so you would turn the novel upside down to read the critical essay, and vice versa.

He tried it out on his publishers but, even though he’d sold a gazillion copies of his second novel round the world, they wouldn’t touch this double-manuscript with a bargepole. Basically, his publishers thought he was nuts.

The story of Henry, the protagonist of Yann Martel’s new

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