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canadian lit

Nine years after his last book, with several false starts and discarded drafts behind him, Saskatoon writer Yann Martel has stepped back onto world literature's centre stage with a quirky new animal novel about the darkest subject imaginable.

Like 2001's The Life of Pi, which won Britain's Man Booker Prize and went on to sell an astounding seven million copies worldwide, Beatrice and Virgil uses talking animals to relate a post-modern allegory, in this case a donkey and a monkey whose convivial relationship disguises deep wounds generated by a metaphorical Holocaust.

Unlike Pi, an obscurity that sold poorly when first published in Canada, gaining sales only after winning the British prize a year later, Beatrice and Virgil is one of the most eagerly anticipated titles in Canadian history. Last July, Mr. Martel received a $2-million advance from Random House imprint Spiegel & Grau for U.S. rights alone, according to a person familiar with the deal.

The total advance for worldwide rights to Beatrice and Virgil is said to have been around $3-million. Those stakes have inspired as much nervousness as excitement at Knopf Canada, the Random House subsidiary where the unusual book underwent its long and troubled gestation.

The result is "strictly sui generis" and sure to inspire dialogue, according to publisher Louise Dennys. But the editing, all admit, was intense.

Pi was re-edited and partly re-written for the British market. With Beatrice and Virgil, an international conclave of publishers summoned Mr. Martel, 46, to an elegant London restaurant and told him the work in progress was not publishable.

At the time, the author was composing a "flip book" with back-to-back covers: one introducing an essay about the Holocaust, the other fronting a play-like novel representing the Holocaust in the least literal way imaginable, by means of talking animals.

The final version of Beatrice and Virgil is narrated by a writer named Henri who makes the identical proposal to his publishers - and meets the same resistance. The real ones weren't quite so nasty in real life, Mr. Martel admitted in a recent interview, but the result was the same. "I did have this lunch with my editors where they convinced me not to publish a flip book," he said. "That's true."

Unlike Henri, however, Mr. Martel achieved a concession: Beatrice and Virgil is being published with two apparent front covers, the back cover an upside-down copy of the front.

But the publishers' intervention is hardly the only twist in the story of Beatrice and Virgil: According to Martel, the novel began as a play-like dialogue between the monkey and the donkey, an absurdist fable very much in the manner of Samuel Beckett. But only snippets survive in the published version.

"I wrote a whole play featuring Beatrice and Virgil, a full two-act play, and it just didn't work," he said. "It just did not work. I needed more distance."

That need led Mr. Martel to the essay, which is mirrored in the novel by a Holocaust essay by the equally blocked Henri. "It took me two and a half years to write it," the actual author said. "A big, long essay on my thoughts on the Holocaust - not so much the Holocaust itself, but its representations."

Although he agreed to let his latest animals find their own audience, unfenced by an explanatory gloss, Mr. Martel still hopes to publish the essay one day.

But after the intervention, he found himself with only fragments of a novel, struggling to conceive his next book years after the surprise success of Pi. With suitable strangeness, inspiration struck when he read about a 2008 fire that destroyed a famous taxidermy shop in Paris.

"I just read that and I thought - taxidermy!" Mr. Martel recalled. "Suddenly I had a little light bulb going off above my head."

Thus began the final rewrite, which introduced Henri and placed him under the influence of a sinister Parisian taxidermist who, just as he brings dead animals back to life, is struggling to make sense of a dark past.

"I completely rewrote the book in three months and added that extra layer," Mr. Martel explained. "I added the writer and the taxidermist and took little fragments of the play and embedded them in the novel."

The result was a $3-million deal, likely the most ever paid for a single Canadian novel.

No financial intervention is necessary - or likely ever will be. As cautious in life as he is audacious in fiction, Mr. Martel invested his winnings in a new Honda Accord and a house in Saskatoon, "on Main Street, just off Broadway."