Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Non-ennui Inducing Life of Pi

As few days ago when I finished reading Yann Martel's Life of Pi, a friend informed that his former book group had deemed the novel "dull". When she saw I was reading it, my friend S. also commented that she had started the book, but didn't get very far before giving up on it. Pi is not the sort of book that one reads half-heartedly. I will admit that as I was reading the novel while waiting at the hairdresser's, I too thought "I'm not sure if I like this." As it turned out, it was not that the book was boring, just that I was reading it in an environment that was already overloaded with stimulus and did not allow me to focus and really be in the book.

As it turned out, once I got home and was able to start over and give the book the attention that it deserved, I found that I really loved it. What appeals to me about the book (in addition to being well written) is that it can be read from so many different angles. The novel poses questions about God, religion and spirituality at the same time as it explores the nature of narrative and reality. Part fable, part allegory, part fictional memoir, it is the kind of novel whose questions linger even after the reading is over.

The story itself is divided into three sections:

1) The childhood of the boy, Pi (Piscine Molitor Patel) in India: This section focuses largely on Pi's quest for God and how his seeking leads him to become a follower of Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity as he develops the belief that different religions are but different "passports" to the divine.

2) The adventure Pi shares with the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. As Pi and his family are emigrating to Canada, their ship sinks. Pi and Richard Parker find themselves stranded together for 227 days on a lifeboat. Realizing that his only chance of survival is to tame the tiger, Pi (using the knowledge he has gleened as a zookeeper's son) sets about training him.

3) What happens to Pi after he is rescued. This section includes a short, alternate explanation of Pi's post-shipwreck experiences. While this version of the story is even more horrific, it is perhaps more realistic than the longer story in section two (a story that reader ends up wanting to believe).

While the points above form the basic framework of the story, there are so many small details that lend to its rendering. For example, Piscine's very name means "pool" and (in a bit of additional foreshadowing), he is the only member of his family who feels comfortable in the water. Additionally, according to Wikipedia, even the tiger's name has significance. Richard Parker is not only a character in a Poe story about a shipwreck, but there is a historical shipwreck that involved a real life Richard Parker.

Then there is Martel's writing style, which is fluid and subtle, for example Pi's reaction to learning the Christian story of the crucifixion:

And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it's God's Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, "Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who's to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed them to you."

"Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up."

"Hallelujah, my son."

"Hallelujah, Father."

These are but a few examples of the kind of details that make the novel such a pleasure to read. Well written, entertaining (I got to the point where I really could not put it down) intelligent, and thought provoking - in short anything but boring.


Chris said...

Funny thing, memory. Such as the way that from no recognisable train of thought it popped into my head that it probably wasn't Life of Pi that I was talking about, but My Name is Red by Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk. The book group read both, I bought and gave away copies of each of them and they both have biographical titles. That's my excuse, though it was really a good mistake to make because it gave you something to write about!

Interesting too that I originally wrote The Life of Pi. I noticed my mistake when I spotted the copy I bought from Amnesty. Like Pink Floyd, the title is so much stronger and more elegant without a definite article.

Martina said...

I was calling it THE Life of Pi for a while too in my head. You're right. It is a stronger title without the "the". Life of Pi also make more of a case for the story being universally allegorical rather than only specifically about the life of some guy named Pi (though I guess that's a layer of the story too!). Anyway, I'm glad you picked it up. I thought it was pretty interesting.