Reviews: Life Of Pi by Yann Martel

Life Of Pi is a fictional account of a young boy’s ordeal at the hands of fate, the ocean and a tiger called Richard Parker. The book begins with a description of the habits of the three-toed sloth and through this, a description of the sensibilities of the book’s protagonist, Pi Patel. He is an academic, studying both religion and zoology. Herein lies the key to this novel. But that comes later. First, our protagonist. Martel introduces us to the boy Pi in exhaustive, florid detail.

He lives in Pondicherry, his father owns a zoo, his older brother loves sport and not much else, and his mother is kind and understanding. Martel emphasises several things in these early chapters; that Pi is a curious, intelligent, religious boy with a love for animals, that some of these animals are extremely dangerous, and that the world around him is both entrancing and obtuse.

“Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious-studies students – muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright – reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.”

These early chapters are inter-cut, every 15 or 20 pages, with italicised chapters (generally very short) that are speaking from a different perspective, a different character, and take place at a different time and in a different place. They are, one realises, from the perspective of a writer, the writer to whom the main story is being related by the protagonist himself. The book is narrated in first-person in both the main part and the minor, with the main being a look back at the protagonist’s youth and the event which changed everything and the minor being the musings of the writer as he goes about his research. The minor interludes fade out as the action of the main narrative beings to pick up.
And pick up it does. The early chapters were irritatingly lacking in anything to keep me interested, and I would have given up on the book had I not set myself a personal challenge of finishing it within the week. The writing is beautiful – that much is undeniable – but little of the content was of interest. Maybe it’s because I have studied religion myself (and came out of it more agnostic than I was prior) but I didn’t find the ruminations on God and faith and the interactions with Priests, Muslim bakers and schoolteachers to be particularly interesting. The book didn’t affix itself to my thoughts until the instigation of a life-or-death struggle against the elements, against insanity, hunger, thirst and the universe, which took hold of my imagination and did not let go.

“Darkness came. There was no moon. Clouds hid the stars. The contours of things became hard to distinguish. Everything disappeared, the sea, the lifeboat, my own body. The seas was quiet and there was hardly any wind, so I couldn’t even ground myself in sound. I seemed to be floating in pure, abstract blackness. I kept my eyes fixed on where I thought the horizon was, while my ears were on guard for any sign of the animals. I couldn’t imagine lasting the night.”

The shipwreck which leaves Pi stranded in a 30 foot long lifeboat with several animals is the turning point, the jump-start the sorely flagging narrative needed. From then on the book was impossible to put down. Matrtel uses a tiger, a hyena, an orangutan, a small boat, a bizarre algaeous island and a blind stranger to discuss the meaning of religion, faith, reason and basic animal instinct in ways which run deeper than one might initially think. That deeper meaning (and the real meaning, according to the author) ended up cheapening the book. It was by no means obvious, and I enjoyed the book thoroughly without turning my attention to it. It wasn’t until I’d finished it that I did some research and learned the whole narrative was an attempt to underline the importance of God in everyday human existence.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, the combination of zoology and religion is key to understanding the deeper, underlying message behind the book. However, take that out of the equation and what you have is a fascinating, riveting story of survival with a killer twist in the tail.

– Ben Vernel

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