LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel

After 11 years in print, I finally got around to reading Life of Pi earlier this month. Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2002, is Yann Martel’s fantasy/adventure/magical realism/survival novel about a young Indian boy and the incredulous 227 days he spends stranded in the Pacific Ocean on board a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. If that brief synopsis doesn’t capture your interest straight away, you’re nuts. I had previously attempted to read Pi twice; however it was a case of third time lucky as I read it from start to finish in an entire day–I do not advise this sort of extreme reading. For days after, I was floating in a cloud of post-Pi bliss and starting most sentences like this…

I loved it. In writing this review, I am assuming that people have either a) read the book, or b) a general knowledge of certain plot nuances and therefore won’t be disappointed if I reveal more information than can be obtained from the trailer. If you don’t fall into either of those categories and wish to head into the cinema without knowing anything, stop reading now.

And we’re good to go.

Life of Pi is split into three parts. In Part One, Martel introduces readers to Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel. As the older Pi reflects on his childhood, the reader learns that Pi grew up in Pondicherry, India, with his brother, his mother, and his father. The Patel family own the Pondicherry Zoo and Pi recounts his unique experiences and upbringing with the animals with great warmth and affection. It is from these beginnings that Pi’s knowledge of animal psychology is strengthened. Part One has strong religious undertones, as Pi (born a Hindu) encounters Christianity and Islam and becomes a worshipper of the three traditions. The charming naivety with which Pi tells of an afternoon where three religious leaders converge on the Patel family and effectively blow the lid on Pi’s hat-trick of religious enthusiasm really touched me. While the Author’s Note suggests that Pi will make the reader believe in God, I instead found hope in Pi’s willingness to see beyond the differences of the three religions, leading him to discover that once you dig a little deeper, they’re not really all that dissimilar. I digress. Pi is set in the 1970s and Pi’s father, deeply unhappy with Mrs Gandhi and eager to escape the political upheaval, makes the decision to sell the zoo and move his family to Canada. They leave India on the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum, along with various animals from the zoo that have been sold and are to be delivered to various locations on their voyage.

The voyage doesn’t go to plan. Part Two opens quite abruptly with the sinking of the Tsimtsum. Animals appear to have been let out of their cages and it is pandemonium aboard the ship. Pi escapes in a lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and Richard Parker. The next 200-odd pages document Pi’s incredible lost-at-sea adventure and ultimate survival. In a rather quick sequence, the zebra and the orangutan are killed by the hyena, which is in turn killed by Richard Parker. And then there were two. Pi is forced to make a choice–either he utilises the skills he has to train and condition Richard Parker, or he will inevitably become another of the tiger’s victims. By using a whistle and some basic psychological conditioning techniques, Pi cleverly establishes a boundary on board the small lifeboat and, by replicating the atmosphere of the zoo, feeds and waters Richard Parker. Although seemingly always on the verge of starvation and death, Pi and Richard Parker survive. A relationship between boy an animal develops, grounded in love and fear and dependence. While the experience animalises Pi, it humanises Richard Parker, so much so that without the tiger’s presence, one doubts whether Pi would have survived at all.

Part Two is as much about the tenacity of the survival instinct as it is about the beauty and mystery of the wilderness and the vast unknown. Martel’s lyrical prose depicts a barren yet beautiful landscape and Pi suffers at the hands of the weather, at the hands of misfortune (a large ship sails right by him, unaware of his predicament), and at the hands of his mind. After months at sea, Pi and Richard Parker wash up on an island that is densely vegetated and home to a large meerkat population, and proceed to stuff themselves with food and re-learn how to walk on solid ground. But the island isn’t the safe haven Pi hoped it to be–it is home to a carnivorous algae that, at night when the tide comes in, turns the ground to acid. Pi realises that if he and Richard Parker stay, ultimately the island will consume them too, and so they set sail once more.

In Part Three, Pi’s adventure concludes when the boat washes up on the Mexican coastline. An exhausted Pi collapses onto the sand and Richard Parker runs into the jungle–disappearing forever. Here, two Japanese Government officials interview Pi to try to piece together the events surrounding the sinking of the Tsimtsum. When Pi recounts his story, the officials obviously do not believe a word of it. So Pi offers them a different version. A deeper and darker version that, once presented, elicited from me the following reactions:

In an act that cements him as a truly gifted storyteller, Martel then leaves it up to the reader to decide which version they prefer.

The better story has a tiger in it.

I’m hopefully (fingers crossed) going to see the film on Wednesday night. Irrespective of when I finally see it, this is how I imagine I will look…

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