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Yann Martel


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

As I suppose almost everyone who picks up this book will already know, its centrepiece is the story of a 16-years-old Indian boy in a lifeboat with a tiger. After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship carrying zoo animals and the boy's family, the only survivors apart from the boy, whose nickname is Pi, are a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, a female orang-utan and a adult Bengal tiger. Before long only the boy and the tiger are left alive. The main part of the book is the story of the vicissitudes they go through: thirst, hunger, heat, exposure, exhaustion. And, of course, the narrator, Pi, is at constant risk of being killed by his ferocious companion.

The story obviously verges on the incredible, but for much of the book the reader's disbelief is held in check by the vividness with which the boy's experiences are described. He keeps himself alive by means of the survival equipment in the lifeboat and by fishing. He also has to feed the tiger, to prevent it from eating him. To avoid this fate, Pi calls on his extensive knowledge of how zoo animals think; he dominates the tiger by controlling it with a whistle and by making it feel seasick whenever it threatens to become aggressive.

This part of the narrative works pretty well; Pi's survival remains just about credible. However, you sense that magic realism is never far away and towards the end of the book it finally breaks through. I have to admit that this is a genre I generally dislike and I began to be out of sympathy with the novel at this point. First, Pi goes temporarily blind and in that state encounters a second blind survivor in another boat who attempts to throttle him. This individual appears to be a hallucination but he is nevertheless killed and eaten by the tiger, so how literally are we supposed to take him?

Next, boy and tiger land on a mysterious floating island populated by meerkats. The island appears to be hospitable at first but later it turns out to have sinister properties. The whole island sequence is dreamlike in character and once again it is unclear how real it is supposed to be.

Finally Pi makes landfall in Mexico and the tiger disappears into the hinterland. Two Japanese investigators interview Pi and manifestly disbelieve his story, so he produces an alternative (and distasteful) version involving cannibalism but no animals. The implication is that we all believe what we want to believe.

The book is mainly a first-person account purportedly told to the author by Pi himself. He is now middle-aged and living in Canada. The author has heard about the story from an old man in India, who assures him that it will make him believe in God. And religion is never far away; in the introductory section of the book, covering some 90-odd pages, Pi indulges in a lot of theological reminiscencing as he describes how, as a boy, he became simultaneously Christian and Muslim as well as Hindu. I found this somewhat tedious and would probably have given up at that point had I not wanted to reach the shipwreck.

Martel, however, seems to want us to take the theological dimension seriously and I suspect that there is an implied connection between the magic realism element and theology, although what the connection is isn't clear. I don't think the statement that the story will make us believe in God is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. For me, this places more metaphysical weight on the tale than it can reasonably be asked to bear.

11 March 2005

%T Life of Pi
%A Yann Martel
%I Canongate
%C Edinburgh
%D 2001
%G ISBN 1-84195-245-1
%P xii + 319 pp
%K fiction

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