Friday, May 15, 2009

46. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

History: First published by Knopf Canada in September 2001,
Plot: The book has three parts. The first section is an adult Pi Patel’s rumination over his childhood in Pondicherry, a former French Colony in India. The main character, Piscine (Pea-seen) Patel (shortened to "Pi" because his classmates had mocked him, calling him Pissing) talks about his life living as the son of a zookeeper, and speaks at length about animal behavior and religion. In the book, Pi stated simply, "I just want to love God. Because of the political situation in India, Pi’s father decides to sell the zoo and relocate the family to Canada. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the cargo ship on which the family is traveling sinks. The second part is an allegory in a medieval style. Pi manages to find refuge on a lifeboat, though not alone. He shares the limited space with a female orangutan named Orange Juice, a wounded zebra, a spotted hyena, and a Royal Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. At first Pi believes that Richard Parker has abandoned the boat. He focuses on surviving the hyena. It is not long before the hyena begins to feed on the zebra. The only reason it had hesitated at first is because it was afraid that it was the tiger's prey, and didn't want to interfere. After the zebra's death, the hyena kills the orangutan, after which Pi approaches it. It is then that he notices that Richard Parker has been resting under a tarpaulin and has been aboard the lifeboat the entire time.
The tiger kills and eats the hyena, but does not immediately attack Pi. The young man manages to construct a raft using supplies aboard the boat, and avoids direct confrontation with Richard Parker by keeping out of the tiger's territory below the tarpaulin. Pi reasons that while the tiger is healthy, he poses less of a threat, as an injured or hungry beast is more dangerous. Therefore keeping the tiger alive becomes his primary focus. During a storm, Pi's raft is destroyed. The young man is forced to climb aboard the lifeboat. He loses his store of food and most of his fresh water. At this point, due to poor diet, nutrition, and weakness, Pi goes temporarily blind. During this state he meets another castaway on a boat traveling parallel with his own. The other man has a French accent. After a period of amicable conversation, he boards Pi's boat. As soon as the man boards, however, Richard Parker kills and devours him. Soon after, the duo wash ashore upon a strange island of vegetation, populated by meerkats, and containing pools of fresh water. After some time, Pi finds a strange tree on the island. When he examines the fruit, he finds it contains human teeth. He realizes that the island is carnivorous, and he and the tiger must leave immediately. Their lifeboat finally washes up on the beach in Mexico. Richard Parker bounds off into the jungle and is never to be seen again.
Here begins the third part of the story. After Pi is rescued and taken to a hospital, two men representing the Japanese Ministry of Transport interrogate and quiz him to find out why the ship sank. Pi offers his story. That does not satisfy the Japanese, and they dismiss it as a fantasy. Pi then offers an alternative explanation. He said he was on board the lifeboat with three other people: his mother, the ship's French chef, and a wounded sailor. The chef first killed and ate the sailor, then brutally killed Pi's mother. After that, Pi killed and ate the chef. Pi asks the men from the shipping company which story they prefer, who respond that they liked the first tale more.
The novel ends with the ministry representatives' report to the Japanese government, in which the two men tell Pi's first story.
Review: Martel has large amounts of intellectual fun with outrageous fable. The novel occasionally develops little disquisitions on the idea of faith, on the limits of credulity or the nature of nature; it asks you to find reference points in Robert Louis Stevenson and Blake, the Bible and the Ramayana.
Mostly, it dramatises and articulates the possibilities of storytelling, which for this writer is a kind of extremist high-wire act: almost every time he looks as if he is about to fall, he contemplates instead a thrilling handstand, or swallows a sword. Though this performance eventually becomes a bit tiresome, you cannot help but admire its showmanship. There is also some useful practical advice: should you ever find yourself alone in a dinghy with a man-eating tiger never forget to blow your whistle at full blast and be sure to puke on the edges of your territory.
Opening Line: “My suffering left me sad and gloomy.”
Closing Line: “Very few castaways can claim to have survived as long as Mr. Patel and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.”
Quotes: “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
“I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life.”
Rating: Good.

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