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Yann Martel


Life of Pi

Category: Fiction | Published: 2001 | Review Added: 23-08-2020

Rating: 4 - A top read

Piscine Molitor Patel grows up in the Indian province of Pondicherry, where his father is a zookeeper. To silence the teasing of his schoolmates about his eccentric name, Piscine calls himself Pi.

When Pi is sixteen, his father, unhappy with the political situation in India, sells the zoo, and takes his family off on a cargo ship to begin a new life in Canada. Accompanying the family are those zoo animals that are yet either to be sold, or to be united with their international buyers.

In mysterious circumstances, the ship sinks, and Pi finds himself the sole human surivor on a lifeboat with four animals. Within a short time, a bloodbath of predation has reduced their number to one, a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.

Thus begins the main story: the precarious voyage of Pi and Richard Parker across the Pacific Ocean. Through knowledge gained as a zookeeper's son of big cat psychology, Pi establishes a minimal "territory" of his own on the boat, catches fish and turtles for Richard Parker, and thus avoids ending up his companion's lunch. There are episodes surreal, macabre, and semi-magical during their epic and difficult journey.

Life of Pi was a deserving winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002. It is original in subject matter and conception, and meticulously and beautifully written. However, don't be lured by the charming cartoon cover featuring Pi and Richard Parker on the lifeboat into thinking this is a feel-good Disney story. The first third of the book, covering Pi's Indian childhood and his precocious fascination with religion, is engaging and even whimsical, but after the shipwreck, the novel is frequently grim reading. It mirrors Tennyson's dictum that nature is "red in tooth and claw": we should not sentimentalise animal life, nor gloss over violence and brutality as components of human life too. There's a sense of Pi's gradual transition to another level of consciousness, though whether it is a higher or a lower one, or both at the same time, is an interesting question. Then there is the surprise ending that is both startlingly effective and chilling.

Life of Pi is a strange book that is simultaneously life-affirming and dark. It seems to seek to square brutal Darwinism with religious faith, forcing the reader to take a stance on whether they can accept religious notions that encompass horror.

Martel's prose is first-rate, and he captures something of the tone of Indian English cadences in Pi's first-person account: slightly formal, slightly ornate, slightly poetic. The novel is ingenious, inventive and profound, but be prepared to be disturbed by it.

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