Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Published by Harcourt
336 pages, 2002
Read an excerpt of Life of Pi.
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Yann Martel recently captured the coveted Man Booker Prize for his zoo parable Life of Pi, but even prior to that great victory his strange little book was generating a lot of buzz. Various critics have made comparisons to other works -- The Jungle Book meets Lord of the Flies, for example (or even Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage). And then there's the controversy over Martel allegedly "borrowing" the storyline from Max and the Cats by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar.
In spite of all the comparisons and accusations, Life of Pi struck me as a startlingly original work, not easily slotted into any known category. Not only that -- it breaks virtually every rule of modern fiction-writing and gets away with it. It's unabashedly religious, even a bit preachy; it has long stretches with no dialogue, even longer descriptive passages; and it can't decide whether to be whimsical or deep, so darts back and forth between the two. There is no doubt that Martel has magic in him, for he alternately charms and shocks, seduces and repels in a way that makes his novel quite addictive.
You may have already heard that Life of Pi is in essence a story of a 16-year-old boy and a tiger forced into frightening intimacy on a lifeboat for a harrowing seven months. This is the jewel, the glittering tiger's-eye of the novel, but Martel goes to great pains to give it the right setting.
Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi for short) lives in Pondicherry, India in the late 1970s. He got his weird handle from a swimming pool in Paris, leading to all sorts of embarrassing school nicknames like "Pissing." Pi can cope with this only because his spirituality is so intense.
Even as a young boy, he identifies with Hindu, Muslim and Christian traditions so strongly that he attends all three churches: "He seems to be attracting religions the way a dog attracts fleas," his skeptical father says. This triune faith leads to a hilarious confrontation between three holy men and Pi's parents at the family zoo.
The zoo is crucial to later developments. Pi's father is the proprietor, and he instills in his children a healthy respect, even a fear, of the predatory animals' potential for violence. Pi loves to wax philosophical about the inmates: "In many ways, running a zoo is a hotelkeeper's worst nightmare. Consider: the guests never leave their rooms; they expect not only lodging but full board; they receive a constant flow of visitors, some of whom are noisy and unruly."
Even worse is the sex stuff: "To speak frankly, many are sexual deviants, either terribly repressed and subject to explosions of frenzied lasciviousness or openly depraved. ...Are these the sorts of guests you would want to welcome to your inn?"
Pi is a strange, dreamy, bookish boy and, though the novel is written in first-person from an adult viewpoint, his world view is unusually sophisticated. Already he realizes that "the main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart." Why these philosophical pronouncements don't clang like cowbells is a bit of a mystery, but surely it attests to Martel's grace, skill and charm in getting his ideas across and making his main character likable.
In spite of all the careful backstory, we don't truly begin to know Pi until the disaster at sea which forces him to spend months with a ravenous predator. The Patel family decides to emigrate to Canada, packing up its motley menagerie on a cargo ship which founders and sinks. Pi is the only human survivor, a reluctant Noah sharing his small lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger incongruously named Richard Parker.
Before too long nature takes its bloody course, the predators eat the prey, and Pi and the tiger are the only ones left: "We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat." Pi takes an inventory of his supplies (a hilarious list which includes such items as "1 survival manual, 1 compass... 1 God") and finds that though he can distill the ocean into drinkable water, food for himself and the constantly hungry Richard Parker will be a nearly unsolveable dilemma.
The previously vegetarian Pi soon learns to devour anything even remotely edible, from fish guts to turtle flippers: "A chopped-up mixture of heart, lungs, liver, flesh and cleaned-out intestines sprinkled with fish parts, the whole soaked in a yolk-and-serum gravy, made an unsurpassable, finger-licking thali."
At one point he is so hungry he tries to eat the tiger's excrement. Almost worse than the constant fear and hunger is the boredom: "My greatest wish -- other than salvation -- was to have a book. A long book with a never-ending story."
What keeps Pi from being eaten straight away is his deep knowledge of animal psychology. Not for nothing is he the zookeeper's son. He knows he must somehow gain the upper hand, which he achieves through intimidation by blasting on a shrill whistle. And Richard Parker knows full well that Pi is his only hope for a steady food supply. The two live for months in a weird symbiosis, the tiger forcing Pi to carry on with his endless, often fruitless fishing.
Such a story of stasis at sea would be monotonous except for the delicious writing, as in this description of a lightning storm: "Right after, a white splinter came crashing down from the sky, puncturing the water. ...The water was shot through with what looked like white roots; briefly, a great celestial tree stood in the ocean."
We know from the beginning that Pi survives, but this makes his story no less compelling. He just misses rescue when a cargo ship sails past him, oblivious; and there is even a heartbreaking encounter with another survivor, but by this time Pi is blind from starvation and barely able to communicate. A strange interlude on an island made entirely of algae feels almost like a stay on another planet.
It's interesting to speculate on what the tiger might symbolize: human aggression? The dark side of the soul? Or could this be a parable to illustrate our need to embrace the seemingly primitive in ourselves, which is, after all, the primal source of life? Pi must eventually acknowledge his abject need for his savage companion, and in the end he confesses it openly:
'I love you!'
Life of Pi made me laugh out loud, stood my hair on end and inspired marvel at such statements as, "Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can." It's easy to fall in love with this quirky, oddly compelling book, biblical in scope, oceanic in depth, yet intimate enough to speak directly to the human heart. | December 2002
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.