14. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002) 319 p.
This book was on my reading list for my creative writing class. I ordered it off eBay, and a few days later – without me having mentioned it to him at all – Chris sent me an email saying:
i want this book http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_of_pi i love it already and i havent even read it
Which was a curious coincidence with no relevance whatsoever. Anyway. It’s a wonderful book.
Life of Pi is split into two very distinct halves, both of them presented as a frame story by a fictitious author. They deal with two phases in the life of Piscine Patel, who nicknames himself “Pi” to avoid taunts from his schoolmates. The first is set in Pondicherry, a French-flavoured Indian city where Pi grows up as the son of a zookeeper. Raised a Hindu, his natural curiousity and unprejudiced piousness attracts him to other religions, and he soon considers himself a Christian and a Muslim as well. This leads to problems with his parents, and all his local priests. Martel’s writing style establishes itself quickly: poetic, eloquent, the kind of man who – along with Michael Chabon, Philip Reeve and Cormac McCarthy – can evoke a scene’s visual beauty with great ease.
The second part of the book, which is the main attraction, covers a sixteen-year old Pi’s bizarre adventures on the Pacific Ocean. His family is migrating from India to Canada, travelling on a Japanese freighter that also carries several animals from their zoo, for transfer to the United States. The ship sinks, and Pi is the only human survivor. He finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger.
The sheer implausibility of this scenario is rendered perfectly feasible by Martel’s writing. As Pi himself says, explaining his story to a disbelieving pair of Japanese investigators while recovering from his ordeal in hospital:
“Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might. Yet the plain fact is that the Tsimtsum brought them together and then sank.”
Martel spent a year researching zoos and animals, and it was time well spent. The behaviour of all the lifeboat’s inhabitants – their poses, their fears, their territorial squabbles and their reaction to being trapped in such a tiny space – feels realistic even to a reader without any firm zoological knowledge. The animals are not as dangerous as the average person might believe, but neither are they harmless. Before long only Pi and the tiger remain, and Pi must gather together all his courage and knowledge of the animal kingdom to somehow survive in thirty square metres of space with a creature that could kill him with a single blow.
Towards the end of the book things grow stranger. Pi runs out of food and water, and as his body slowly dies, his faculties begin to dim. Another castaway is met whose plight is suspiciously similar to his own, and they share a brief and cryptic conversation. The tiger speaks to him in the night. A mysterious island that seems both heaven and hell is discovered, yields a terrible secret, and promptly fled from. Whether these experiences are dreams, hallucinations or the truth is difficult to ascertain. In the final chapters, as Pi relates his tale to the Japanese investigators, he implies that perhaps the entire story – even the crowd of animals on the lifeboat, which Martel made so perfectly believable – was just a comforting fable his mind constructed to protect itself from the much darker, disturbing truth of what really happened on the lifeboat. Is this the true story? Or is Pi simply spinning it out in frustration because the investigators do not believe he could have survived for so long with a tiger?
There is a wealth of symbolism, allegories and interpretations that could be taken from this book, and I don’t know where to begin with them all. I will re-read this many times in my life. It’s a beautiful story built on a fascinating premise, one of those few perfect novels where everything comes together and just works. Unless I come across something truly incredible in the next 36 books, Life of Pi will most likely win my pick as novel of the year.