Saturday, March 04, 2006

Review of Life Of Pi, by Yann Martel

A slow news day here in Chanceland (watched a lot of "The Shield" on DVD with my parents). This here entry is a review of Yann Martel's 2001 Booker-prize winning novel, Life Of Pi.

It is an imaginative and lively book of adventure and survival. I think it deserved to win its award, and if you're looking for a book that's easy reading but still makes you think, this fabulous (in both senses, good and like a fable) book will do nicely.

The hero, Pi (short for Piscine Molitor Patel --- one of the book's bits of interesting whimsy) is a boy from Pondicherry, a town and territory in the south of India, a region once governed by the French. (Yes, though France never held as tightly or as confidently to the reins of Empire as Britain, the French did poke their noses even onto the sub-continent. For a variety of reasons, including an early distrust of foreign markets --- Indian textiles were burned in the streets of Paris in the late 1700s to protest competition with French cloth sellers, foreshadowing the firebombing of Paris McDonald's outlets in the last decade --- French India never became an extension of France as British India did with England. But I digress.)

Pi, like India itself (and vaguely echoing Kipling's Kim) is attuned to spirituality in all its forms; he is a dedicated follower of at least three major religions. His father, a zookeeper, decides to move the family (along with a few animals) to Canada to make a new start. Tragically, however, the boat sinks in the middle of the ocean, leaving Pi the sole survivor on a life boat. The sole human survivor, that is, for he shares his 26-foot space with an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker. Oh yes, Richard Parker is the name of a huge Bengal tiger (another whimsical diversion). It seems the animals want to share the boat with Pi.

The next third of the book is a tale of survival in its rawest form: instead of The Old Man and the Sea, we have The Young Boy and the Sea and the Tiger, if you will. How will Pi survive being stranded in a lifeboat, let alone existing in such a cramped space with a vicious carnivore? Can he dominate the tiger by will alone? If you get this far in the novel, there is no going back: you must find out how Pi deals with his bizarre situation, and others to come even more bizarre, including a blind French cannibal, an algae island, and some meerkats. Yes, meerkats. Intrigued yet?

Martel writes with a fine fluidity of style: the first third is a delightful rumination on spirituality and certain particulars of Indian life through the eyes of a young boy. The next section of the novel is a mesmerizing, beguiling, sometimes exasperating blend of detailed, realistic survival memoir (rations, thirst and other problems of survival are dealt with in detailed fashion) and fantastic medieval-like allegory. The end is the most controversial section. It disappointed many readers, I know. But to me, it justified the entirety of the novel's middle passage, offering plenty of food for thought on the twin thirsts for corporal survival and some kind of spiritual comfort.


medea said...

Is it awful of me to say I like The Shield (especially Season 4) better than the Life of Pi?

Chance said...

Not in the least (as long as you've actually read the latter). I think the Shield's probably as valid an expression of art as Pi, it's just that I currently have nothing to say about the TV show other than "what a frickin' awesome show!" and I do have some thoughts on Pi.

And Pie. I like pumpkin.