Saturday, March 2, 2013

Short Take: Life of Pi, Yann Martel

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

It’s often said that an inspired writer can make a great story out of anything, and few come more inspired than Yann Martel when he wrote the novel Life of Pi. Martel has an extraordinary gift for creating humor, drama, and epiphany out of every moment he depicts. Reading the book, one feels as if one is discovering life along with protagonist Piscine “Pi” Patel. The novel begins with him at about age 40 and living in Canada. But it quickly shifts to his childhood in India, where his family owned a local zoo. The reader first follows him through his discoveries of the ways of the zoo’s animals. One then shifts into his adolescent adventures with religion and his explorations of the Hindu, Christian, and Islamic faiths. It all sets the stage for the book’s major section, in which he and an adult Bengal tiger are the only survivors of a shipwrecked boat in the Pacific. They are trapped together on a large lifeboat, and Martel beautifully renders how they come to peacefully coexist in their months of close quarters at sea. This scenario might seem too limited to sustain for over 200 pages, but Martel brilliantly meets the challenge. He catches the reader up in the experience of survival--the protagonist’s forging of a mutually respectful relationship with the tiger, and his learning how to fend for food and water for both of them on the ocean. Martel keeps the reader in awe of the beauty and grandeur of nature throughout; one experiences it as both a terrifying other and an interdependent whole. The book is a thrilling journey for the reader. The story is so captivating that the weak final section, in which Martel raises the question of whether it’s the protagonist’s true account or a fantasy version of his experiences, passes by painlessly. The exhilaration of the existential sea adventure will stay with one long after one finishes the book. The novel was published in 2001, and deservedly won the 2002 Man Booker Prize.

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