April 23, 2012

Book: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:08 pm

This is one of the strangest books I have ever read!

The story concerns a South Indian boy from Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu. His name is Piscine Moliter Patel. For any reader, this name will sound strange; almost anyone knows that the first name of Piscine is not known in India, as is the middle name! For those who know India, it is even stranger, as the surname belongs to the Northern state of Gujarat and not Tamil Nadu. The story is claimed to be a real one because, in the preface, the author claims to have seen one
Adirubaswamy (a more plausible name) who told him to contact the hero, Patel, who now lives in Toronto Canada, which makes the invented name even stranger! I do realize that the name had to be changed for obvious reasons, but the story offers no hint that the lad was anything but Tamil, and the surname inconsistency jars almost as much as the invented first and middle names.

Onwards to the story. Almost anyone who had been curious about the book when it won the Booker Prize would have known that it is the story of a boy trapped in a sea on a lifeboat with an assorted group of animals. Some would even know that the animals involved are a zebra, a chimpanzee, a hyena and a tiger. How can you write a whole book on this subject? How can there be a dialog with any of the characters?

The mystery unravels when you read the book. The boy, whose name is a shortened ‘Pi’, tells the story. the book is about his entire life (at least until he completed the journey on sea), not just about the journey. It talks of his childhood in Pondicherry, his uncle (Adirubaswamy) and his influence, the zoo his father was running there, and many things besides.

The story starts very well, with descriptions of his life and animals, with interesting and amazing facts of everyday life with animals packed into every page. The narrative is superb. You read spellbound when the boy discovers other religions and their basics, and compares Hinduism with Christianity (the Catholic variety) and Islam, finding good in all ways of worship. You fail to notice when it turns too sweet, leaving a saccharine aftertaste in its mouth;  suddenly you have this epiphany  and see yourself swimming in the cloying sweetness that pulls you back like molasses. It gets incredibly preachy and almost wants to make you put the book down.

The story picks up again after the boy is shipwrecked. The story of the sinking of the ship and how he gets into a lifeboat that seems to contain a zebra are told brilliantly. He subsequently takes on a Bengal Tiger (called, wait for it, Richard Parker) and a Chimpanzee. When the tiger subsequently vanishes from the lifeboat (presumably dropped off the other side of the boat into the sea) the boy discovers a hyena that was hiding in the lifeboat. How did all these animals
appear there? They escaped from the ship during the shipwreck. They were some of the zoo animals sold by the family and transported to zoos in the US.

If you expect a peaceful journey with interspecies amity on the boat, you will be disappointed. It is fabulously told tale of danger, animal instincts surfacing, and a natural denouement of predator and prey. It is very gory, and if you do not have the stomach for gore, you may want to think twice about reading this one. The contrast with the earlier cloying sweetness cannot be more stark.

The transformation of a vegetarious, pious, peace-loving teenager to a meat eater and raw meat eater at that is well told! The story is superbly told and grips you till the very end. But, like the interrogators at the end, we as readers also tend to disbelieve that the story actually occurred or even based substantially on an actual story. The incidents are just too pat to happen in reality.

But great descriptions, wonderful English, excellent and unusual plot, and the tension that is maintained are not marred fully by the preachy tone that very irritatingly surfaces often.

But just for that reason, this book probably deserves only a 6/10.

— Krishna


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