[Issue #9, Winter 2002-3]
Life of Pi
By Yann Martel
Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa
I'm not much of a fiction reader. Art, culture, religion: yes. Society,
business, economics: yes. Cosmology, the miracle of the cell, the search
for meaning: yes. Art: yes. History: yes. Biography: yes. Fiction: When
you live in an ice-cream shop, why stick to vanilla?
Somehow comparing the real world with what the mind can invent is a little
like visiting a famed art museum only to find the latest exhibit consists
of cast paper. So when I hear about a novel that has everyone a-dither,
my usual habit is to open it to anywhere in the middle and read a paragraph.
Figuring that the middle of a novel is like the top of the fifth in a baseball
game, if there's a homer there, I go back and read the book's opening paragraph.
Then the last paragraph. If those pass muster I start in on Chapter 1 and
continue till either boredom or completion, whichever arrives first.
Let he or she who doth jape be not guilty of fast-forwarding.
Life of Pi broke every rule. The paragraph at random could have been
anywhere in the story. It got me so mesmerized from word #3 on that I was
a full three pages into things before I realized I'd broken some kind of
boredom barrier. So back to the beginning, only to find two beginnings.
The first, an Author's Note in italics, starts off, "This book was
born when I was hungry." If ever a notion strikes to the heart of the
writer's plight, that one is it. Writers lead a such clearly defined life:
no words, no eat.
The second was a little less promising: "My suffering left me sad and
gloomy." Aside from the fact that "sad" and "gloomy"
are neighbors without a fence (go look them up) and a lousy way to start
a novel billed on the jacket with paeans like "the greatest living
writer of the generation born in the sixties," "astonishment,
delight, and gratitude," and "rare and wondrous storytelling."
But then book jacket copy is like baconburger ads on TV: they look great
steaming away during a 3-second photo shoot under the hot lights, but nobody
in their right mind would eat such a thing, especially where they tend to
"My suffering left me sad and gloomy." Hoo-boy, another mirror-gazing
biography of the creative-writing-school type that lecturers adore and publishers
transport instantly from slush pile to the "Thank you for your interest"
So, then, to the other end of the book, where the last sentence was more
promising: "Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at
sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger."
In the event of mixed feelings, press on. Back to the beginning. Paragraph
two, sentence 2 read, "I have kept up with what some people would consider
my strange religious practices." An eyebrow-raiser, for if there is
anything that sets a person apart from the institutionalized commonlot smothering
slowly away in the incense of devotion, it is admitting to a strange religious
"Get back to work you fool," my left brain said. "Press on,
you fool," my right brain retorted. The part in the middle said, "There's
nothing left in your right brain and nothing left in your right brain. Go
with your soul."
That was at 10:00 a.m. By 1:00 a.m. and two (non-bacon) burgers later I
had reached the last sentence via the approved route and had transformed
into a fiction enthusiast, at least of the fiction of Yann Martel.
By now everything that can be said about the literary merits of this book
have been said -- to say nothing of the author's rise from obscurity to
stardom during one 70-minute shoe-throwing session at the Booker Prize selections
meeting). So let's dwell on some things that haven't.
Technique, for one. For writers who want to learn how to move from riveting
phrase to riveting paragraph, or move along an inherently tedious story
(277 days of survival at sea) without resorting to that ultimate cop-out
of a word "suddenly," this is a book to study as much as read.
As long expanses of nonevents inchworm their way across the chapters, seldom
do two paragraphs go by without a complete change of topic. It is as if
Mr. Martel threw years of diary notes snipped into one-paragraph segments
into a hat and started pulling them out. Pastiche perhaps, but boy is he
good at the connection phrases.
On the other hand, when he does get expansive, the detail can be amazing.
Chapter 71 (on page 202! -- see what I mean about the diary notes?) gives
complete instructions for taming a tiger on a 26-foot lifeboat at sea, and
more, how to do so with less seeming fear for the task than demanded by
bringing to heel a Yorkshire terrier. Metatag the literature as you may,
you won't find this anywhere else.
It is tempting to play the self-inflated book reviewer with books like this.
For that you can consult one of the packaged cake mixes that weigh the shelves
of the literary supermarket. For me Life of Pi was a meander through
the Asian street stalls of language, a tasty sentence here, tart and toothy
paragraph there, chapters like the dozens of rice sacks each similar and
yet different from the next, obtaining from each stall the spices of word
and condiments of concept that leap from puff of flame to bubbling pot to
repast of wonder enough to commence a lifetime.
Or as Mr. Martel better puts it on page 5: ". . . reason, that fool's
gold of the mind."
of Pi from Amazon.com
Dana De Zoysa has lived for many years throughout Asia, including the Philippines,
Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and India. He has also lived in Holland and France,
and traveled throughout Europe and Northern Africa. He has published numerous
books, articles and reviews on Asia-related and developing-country topics.
CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts
& Features | Guidelines | CBR