Friday, 28 May 2004

Yann Martel: Life of Pi (2001)

Edition: Canongate, 2002
Review number: 1240

There are several unusual aspects to the narrator of Life of Pi, Piscone Molitor Patel. The first and most obvious is his name - his father chose it because he was interested in swimming; it is a Parisian pool. Secondly, he lives in an Indian zoo where his father works as a keeper, and thirdly, he is simultaneously a devout Hindu, a devout Muslim and a devout Catholic. When his family emigrate to Canada, taking many of the zoo animals with them to new homes in American zoos, disaster strikes and their ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific, leaving Pi (as he is known) stranded in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger.

The Indian background, the religious aspects of the novel, and its air of unreality all bring to mind Salman Rushdie. Life of Pi is more genial than that suggests, as well as being full of useful tips on how to avoid being eaten if stranded on a small lifeboat with a hungry tiger. As time passes, it becomes clear that at least part of Pi's story is actually delusional, visions brought on by his ordeal; their onset is subtly introduced, so that even after the reader comes to realise that not everything Pi recounts is real (itself an ironic realisation in a novel reader), they are still unable to put their finger on when they began - possibly even right at the beginning: maybe there is no tiger.

Though the Indian background is a totally superficial reason to link this novel with Salman Rushdie, the other common ideas do suggest some kind of kinship. However, there is something missing from Life of Pi as compared to Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses. In Rushdie's work, there is an underlying (satirical) purpose to the techniques he uses - the history of the Indian subcontinent since partition in one case, the author's feelings about Islam in the other. That sort of point to the novel is missing here (or at least I didn't pick it up), and so to me Life of Pi is lacking something in literary weight.

That doesn't mean that it's not worth reading. Another connection with Midnight's Children is that it won the Booker Prize, and it has been a big favourite with book groups since its publication. Adjectives used to describe this novel in reviews that I have seen commonly include "uplifting" or "heartwarming". That sort of description often seems to be a cover up for mawkishly sentimental, but that isn't the case here; I can't say I found it any of uplifting, heartwarming, or sentimental. Amusing and interesting, that is what I would say.

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