Published by Harcourt, Inc.
Review by W. R. Greer
I turned around, stepped over the zebra and threw myself overboard.
This sentence, full of surprise and wonder, jumps out of the middle of Life of Pi. It's indicative of the story Yann Martel tells in this novel, a remarkable story where he makes the unbelievable sound credible. When you stumble across sentences like that, you know you're in the hands of a master storyteller. Yann Martel gives us the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, self-christened as Pi. He drives this name home by saying "Three! Point! One! Four!" to his new classmates after suffering the nickname of Pissing at a previous school. Never mind that his name comes from a swimming pool in France. Pi Patel is an earnest young man in Pondicherry, a tiny area in southern India which was once part of French India (one of the many obscure facts that Yann Martel scatters throughout his story). The first part of the novel tells of Pi's childhood as the son of the zookeeper in Pondicherry. Growing up in the zoo, Pi learns a lot about animals. He educates us in the ways of animals, both penned and wild, and in how to keep them content and controlled. He rails against anthropomorphosis, which is ascribing human emotions and traits to animals. Instead he explains that animals are creatures of habit and once all their needs are met, they're content and willing to repeat the same scenario every day. Upset their routine, even in the smallest of ways, and you have an unhappy animal on your hands. Pi even tells the reader how a lion tamer controls his charges by being the alpha male, asserting his dominance and providing for their needs so they stay submissive to him. It turns out to be a good lesson for Pi to learn as a young man.
As he enters his teen years, Pi goes in search of God. His parents weren't pious people, but growing up in India, Pi was initially a Hindu. When he first encounters Christianity, he finds Jesus lacking in comparison to the Hindu gods, who are grand in stature and history. He comes to embrace Christianity's message of love. Then he discovers Islam, "a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion." Pi becomes a devout member of all three religions, content in his newfound sense of God. Once the priest, the pandit, and the imam discover his activities with each other's churches, they confront Pi and his parents and tell him he can't belong to all three and must choose one. The fractious arguing among the three religious leaders over which religion he should choose is the funniest part of the novel. Yann Martel makes them all look simplistic and spiteful as they belittle each other's faith. Pi puts them all in their place with the declaration that he was just trying to love God. His older brother, Ravi, provides a different perspective on it all, suggesting he might try to become a Jew too. "At the rate you're going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life."
The first section of the novel ends with Pi and his family leaving India for Canada. The zoo is closing and the animals are being sent to zoos all around the world. The family and many of the animals board a Japanese cargo ship for their passage to Canada. Pi is 16 and embarking on the trip to a new life. Unfortunately, it wasn't the life he expected. As the first sentence in Part Two of the book says, "The ship sank."
Pi is cast adrift in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a huge Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The first week is a horrific one as the animals battle for survival in the cramped boat and Pi quakes with fear as he tries to avoid being part of the food chain. Eventually, just the tiger and he are left in the boat. The rest of the book is Pi's tale of 227 days at sea. The boat is well stocked for a human, but Pi soon realizes that his only hope for survival is to keep the tiger content and subservient to him. Pi lives in constant terror of Richard Parker, but manages to keep him supplied with fish, turtles, and fresh water so that he doesn't turn on him. Pi spends most of him time in despair, not just emotional, but physical. Yet, at times, he is dazzled by the wonderfulness of God's creation and creatures. He refuses to give up and die and instead lives by his wits and determination. He has to abandon being a vegetarian to survive on anything he can eat, which he finds he attacks with the savagery of a starved animal.
Yann Martel keeps the story of Pi's long voyage moving at an interesting pace. You know from the beginning that Pi will survive, but at times you wonder how he will overcome each challenge he faces. Martel doesn't allow Richard Parker to be anything more than a dangerous Bengal tiger and Pi never to be more than a desperate boy lost at sea. As Pi's long days at sea take a toll on his health and mind, the story begins to strain credulity. Martel then challenges the reader at the end to disbelieve it all. In the end, it becomes a matter of faith.
There are parts of the book that come up short. The book is written as Pi's recollection to the writer researching his story. The first section of the book has short chapters with the writer interacting with the adult Pi. These serve no purpose other than to remind us that this is the adult Pi retelling his story. The writer doesn't surface again until the very end of the book. At times, the teenage Pi sounds like an adult philosopher when lost at sea. If you stretch the point that the novel is Pi retelling the story in his adult voice, you can let it pass. Almost.
These are small nits, though. Reading Life of Pi, you find yourself at the mercy of a great storyteller. Yann Martel will dazzle you with his prose and his mastery of arcane facts, and challenges you to believe his story. You will be left with a better understanding of animals, including man, and much to ponder and question. Life of Pi is a delicious treat to savor.
Copyright © 2002 reviewsofbooks.com
Life of Pi is the winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize