Henry receives a package in the post, with a letter and Flaubert's tale
"The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator", a fable about a boy whose
greatest pleasure is killing animals. If you don't know Flaubert's
story, never fear: Martel devotes 15 pages to summarising and quoting
long passages from it. He also explains that "hospitator" means host; at
the book's end we learn that Henry's surname is L'Hôte. The package
also includes part of a play about two characters named Beatrice and
Virgil, standing in a road, by a tree, trading cryptic epigrams. Later
they offer sophomoric philosophising about something they call the
Horrors: "How can there be anything beautiful after what we've lived
through? It's incomprehensible."
The letter writer lives in the
same city as our prataganist and also happens to be calle Henry. He is a
taxidermist and Beatrice, it transpires, is a stuffed donkey, Virgil a
stuffed monkey on her back (see what he did there?); they are his "guide
to hell". Martel helps readers struggling with all this literary
virtuosity: "Hell? What hell? Henry wondered. But at least now he
understood the connection to The Divine Comedy. Dante is guided through inferno and purgatory by Virgil and then through paradise by Beatrice."
Like the reader who needs help understanding Martel's allusions, Henry the taxidermist needs help writing his play, A 20th-Century Shirt
(Beatrice and Virgil are living on a striped shirt – don't ask). Henry
inexplicably agrees to assist. The result is a book by turns
pretentious, humourless, tedious, and obvious. All the characters are
there to be manipulated: Henry is endlessly blind to the evident, while
the other characters are cardboard cutouts. Taxidermist Henry reads
ersatz-Beckett out loud for pages at a time, or pontificates on the fate
Attempting to manage the problems he has created in
trying to mix allegory, psychology, metafiction, mystery and a parable
about the Holocaust (not to mention our inhumanity to animals) in under
200 pages, Martel also makes Henry explain the book's flaws: "There
seemed to be essentially no action and no plot in it. Just two
characters by a tree talking. It had worked with Beckett and Diderot.
Mind you, those two were crafty and they packed a lot of action into the
apparent inaction. But inaction wasn't working for the author of A 20th-Century Shirt." No kidding.
the end, author Henry develops some "games", 12 questions posing moral
quandaries: would you allow your son to endanger his life to try to save
the rest of the family? If you knew people were about to be killed and
you couldn't stop it, would you warn them? If only Martel had bothered
to dramatise any of these dilemmas, he might have produced a novel that
didn't show the limits of representation quite so painfully.