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Monday, June 11, 2007

Life of Pi

yann martel life of pi book review
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel.

I am a little late in writing this review, but, better late than never, right?

This book is about Piscine Molitor Patel (aka Pi Patel), who finds himself stranded on the Pacific, in a lifeboat, with Richard Parker, a Bengal Tiger, his companion through this ordeal, and comes out alive to share his story.

Ah. But, that is not all. Whether you believe his story or not depends entirely on you, the reader.

Here's what Pi says about his name:
I was named after a swimming pool.
When your name is Bob no one asks you, "How do you spell that?" Not so with Piscine Molitor Patel.
Some thought it was P.Singh and that I was a Sikh, and they wondered why I wasn't wearing a turban.
It was as if their tongues were charioteers driving wild horses. They could manage well the first syllable, the Pea, but eventually the heat was too much and they lost control of their frothy-mouthed steeds and could no longer rein them in for the climb to the second syllable, the seen. Instead, they plunged hell-bent into sing, and next time round, all was lost.

My hand would be up to give an answer, and I would be acknowledged with a "Yes, Pissing." Often the teacher wouldn't realize what he had just called me.
I picked up a piece of chalk and said as I wrote:
My name is
Piscine Molitor Patel,
known to all as
-- I double underlined the first two letters of my given name --
Pi Patel

For good measure I added
π = 3.14
and I drew a large circle, which I then sliced in two with a diameter, to evoke that basic lesson of geometry.

By this time (page 23), it became a can't-put-me-down book for me.

Pondicherry, India, is one of my favorite towns. Even during my visit to India last year I went there just to absorb the air and the culture. It still retains a lot of the French influence along with French street names.

Pi and his brother Ravi live with their parents in Pondicherry where his dad manages a zoo. The first part of the book talks a lot about zoo-keeping and lessons one must never forget about wild animals, despite them being in a controlled zoo environment. One such lesson that seemed particularly cruel (which of course is a brilliant fore-shadowing) involved Pi's dad teaching about the dangers of a tiger. Pi's father takes him to the Tiger area in the zoo, and right before the graphic lesson:
"Tigers are very dangerous", Father shouted. "I want you to understand that you are never - under any circumstances - to touch a tiger, to pet a tiger, to put your hands through the bars of a cage, even to get close to a cage. Is that clear?"

Circumstances so arrange themselves that Pi's family decide to move to Canada, en masse, including the menagerie of zoo animals. On the way, Tsimtsum, their boat, sinks taking much of the animals and Pi's family with it.

Pi finds himself on a lifeboat along with a nervous zebra, a brutal and aggressive hyena, a hulking yet gentle orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (the story of his name is quite amusing as well). Pi manages to forge a tenuous truce with the tiger purely for survival, as they embark on the adventure of a lifetime, showing remarkable fortitude and resourcefulness that helps them both survive 200+ days in the ocean until they are beached at the Mexican coast.

What prevents Pi from being Richard Parker's next meal? Well, in part, it is Pi's knowledge about animal psychology. Early zoo life prepares Pi for just this sort of thing. Well, all right, not entirely.

Yann Martel tells a brilliant story. And weaves in so many threads so intricately that I could not help being fascinated by it all:
  • Pi's spiritual disposition: he is a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim all at once, by choice
  • the many zoological anecdotes about animals and their behavior: if you fall into a lion's pit, the reason the lion will tear you to pieces is not because it's hungry-- be assured, zoo animals are amply fed-- or because it's bloodthirsty, but because you've invaded its territory
  • the author's incredulous claim at the beginning that this story will "make you believe in God",
  • the unbelievable story of carnivorous algae island full of meerkats,
  • and best of all, the twist at the end of the book that questions the whole fantastic story of Pi's survival.

Pi is a true spiritual seeker, absorbing the three religions, learning more about them willingly and eagerly. At a certain point in their adventure, Pi has a dialogue with Richard Parker, which blurs the lines of reality and fantasy for me. Pi's intensely spiritual nature makes him note that "the main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart."

Life of Pi is not just a simple adventure story. The book dared me to speculate on what the tiger might symbolize. The penultimate chapter simply blew me away. When I finished the last chapter (there are exactly 100 chapters, and author cheekily notes it in his narration too), I closed the book, held on to it tightly afraid to let go, transfixed, filled with awe. The ending makes the rest of the story that much more meaningful. And, more than just the story, it is Yann Martel's telling of it that still lingers and teases my mind.

So, what is Life of Pi about? This question would elicit so many answers from the readers that one has to just read it oneself to find out.

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Blogger Bindu said...

hi Sheela , nice review !

I read this book back in 2003 it got booker then If i am right ..

Your review makes me go for a re-read

BTW , Nice blog you have here :-)

2:37 PM  

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