Sunday, 23 January 2011
Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Life of Pi is one of those much vaunted books that I hear a massive amount about, then approach with trepidation wondering how much of the hype is merited. Checking the background to the book before writing this I was surprised to see it was 2002 when it won the Booker prize - I didn't realise it had taken me so long to get round to it!
The book starts with an author's note explaining that it seemed natural to write the book in the first person, presumably to better convey the experiences of Piscine Patel (better known as Pi, or 3.14, at school, rather than endure the mispronunciation of his full name) It also makes the lofty promise that the story will make you believe in God.
The first part introduces us to Pi's early life in Pondicherry, India. He is growing up living in a zoo, attending a Catholic school and trying to be a Muslim, Hindu and a Christian. This is to the bemusement, or perhaps amusement, of the rest of his family. Concerned by the political climate of the mid 70s Pi's parents decide to sell up and move to Canada. Many of the animals are sold to zoos in the USA, so arrangements are made for the family to travel with the animals by sea, leading us to the second part of the book.
At the start of part 2 the ship the family and menagerie are travelling on sinks. Somehow Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, save for the company of a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan and a Bengal tiger. Not only does Pi have to survive 227 days afloat in the Pacific, with all the attendant problems being cast adrift presents, he also has to deal with his animal companions.
The final part takes place in a hospital in Mexico once Pi has finally found land once more. He is interviewed by investigators from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, who are investigating the disappearance of the ship Pi was travelling on.
The first part tells us about the sort of person Pi is, provides an interesting defence of zoos and covers quite some ground on religion. In fact I felt a little bogged down by the pages and pages on the basic beliefs that support the three religions Pi subscribes to. At this point I was starting to think it would be another of those books that failed to meet high expectations. While there are moments in the second part where Pi is hoping for divine intervention or marvelling at creation religion as a theme plays much less of a role than I was expecting.
Moving onto the story of his time at sea the book shifted gear. Details of the battles between the animals and how Pi manages to provide himself with the essentials of life while avoiding instant death by tiger was highly readable, although by now I was starting to question whether what had been set up as a true story was anything of the sort. This is something of a flight of fancy that I enjoyed despite some parts including butchery in the name of survival that made me cringe.
The final part sealed my affection for this book. In most books I read by the end I want to be clear about what has happened and generally quite like it if all the threads tie up. However here the end of the book throws everything I read in even greater doubt. For once instead of feeling miffed I find myself happy that I am mystified as to what actually happened. This is a rare occasion where I am pleased to say a much hyped book lived up to it's reputation, in my eyes at least, although I don't think it alone would make me believe in God.