Friday, August 23, 2013

Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this spiritual fable of survival, an Indian boy is stranded in the Pacific ocean for 227 days - accompanied by a Bengal tiger.

Piscine Molitor Patel, called Pi, grew up in Pondicherry, the son of a zookeeper. He tells his story with charm and earnest believability, starting with his religious life as an adherent of three faiths at once (Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity) and describing the events that led to the sinking of the ship that was carrying him to Canada with his family and a small menagerie of wild animals.

The most unbelievable circumstance is not his survival at sea in an open life raft for 227 days, but his survival with an unlikely companion: a full-grown, 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi suffers the usual thirst, hunger, and exposure of a survivor, but also mortal terror of the giant predator sharing his boat. He comes up with a strategy that preserves not only his own life, but also that of the tiger, who becomes his own reason for staying alive.

I read this book around the time it first came out (it won the Mann Booker in 2002) and loved it, and on the second reading I am still a big fan. My favorite part of the story is when Pi and Richard Parker land in a sinister island paradise. That section is so outlandish it could have come from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels or Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, but Pi is such a credible narrator that everything he recounts feels true. Life of Pi is one of those rare prize-winners that is not only well-written with vivid characters, but also has a plot hook that appeals to anyone hungry for a good story.

The most obvious next read is the classic survival story, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. You might also pick up The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. In 2010 Yann Martel published his second novel, Beatrice and Virgil. It garnered very mixed reviews, and for me it didn't work as well as Life of Pi. That said, it contains a wonderful description of a pear (shades of Pi's conversation with the Frenchman about a banana) that could be read on its own - but overall the story and characters in Beatrice and Virgil are far less engaging.

Is Pi's story true or not? The final scene of the novel calls this into question. Life of Pi falls under the difficult-to-define genre of "magical realism" (a term a friend of mine objects to because it contains an inherent assumption that "realism" is only what falls into the Western thought tradition: rational and nonmagical). So how you respond to the horrific "realistic" story Pi tells to placate the shipping company investigators (this one starring an all-human cast) says more about your own worldview than about what the "true" story of Life of Pi is supposed to be. Knowing both versions doesn't invalidate either story, but rather deepens the novel's meaning. It's a difficult hat trick to pull off, but Martel does it gracefully without undermining the beauty of Pi's tale.

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