Saturday, 20 October 2012

Yann Martel- Life of Pi

Life of Pie
Cannongate
Yann Martel
2001

"I know what you want. You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality."

Okay, I've been lazy for far too long with this blog. My original excuse was that I moved house and didn't feel like writing anything while I was settling in, but to be honest it's just because I'm one of those people who finds it way easier to spend time reading or watching the work of others than actually composing something in my own words. That's probably why I write a book review blog. Anyway, now I'm finally forcing myself to catch up with the backlog of stuff I've read and haven't reviewed (so the Discworld stuff is going to have to wait), and it seems appropriate to start with a book that's soon to be released as a probably massive Hollywood blockbuster; Yann Martel's Life of Pi.

Before I started to read Pi, I wasn't honestly expecting to like it, because I'm constantly suspicious of any book I see that's been included and praised by a TV book club, because the type of people I've seen on those programs make me want to go to sleep for the rest of my life. I had the same problem with Cormac McCarthy's The Road before I read it, but I enjoyed that. So, after being promised it was brilliant, I gave Life of Pi a shot. Thankfully, it was brilliant.

I love this cover.
The initial attraction for most people to this book is its intriguing high-concept set-up; a young Indian boy named Piscine is shipwrecked on a lifeboat in the Pacific ocean with a Bengal tiger. It's very attention-grabbing, but obviously the reason why the book is such a successful and unclassifiable piece of work is because there's a great deal more than that. First of all, Martel presents the tale as a first-hand story being narrated to the author by Pi as an old man, recounting not just the primary tale but detailing his life from the beginning. From the beginning Pi is established as a very eccentric, but passionate and willful child (like Rudyard Kipling's Kim on Red Bull), who, despite being raised as Hindu, chooses to declare himself both a Christian and Muslim as well. Pi's family own and run a zoo in Pondicherry, India, and Pi enjoys an amazing childhood with the many animals he knows by name. But then the zoo is sold, and Pi learns he is to travel to Canada with his family on a large boat, with many of the zoo animals caged beneath deck. Guess what happens next?

As the ship sinks, Pi is thrown onto a lifeboat, alongside a Zebra with a broken leg, a ravenous hyena, an orangutang, and a  Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. What follows is a desperate fight for survival, with each day a battle of will and cunning between tiger and boy. Naturally events progress somewhat unexpectedly, but I'll stubbornly resist spoiling any of them. The third part of the book is different in style, as Pi has a long conversation with a third party of individuals in a manner which potentially changes the whole nature of the story we've just read. While I felt the main narrative was thrilling enough, it's this conclusion which elevated Life of Pi for me as something not just good, but great.

Hopefully at some point I'll re-read it, because it certainly seemed like a book that could improve and change with each revist, especially during the second reading when events can be approached in a much fuller context. Also, in hindsight I can see why Life of Pi was selected and highlighted by mainstream popular culture because it works well on several levels; not only as a surreal character odyssey but as an engaging human drama, and one that should be a pretty easy sell for the 20th Century Fox if they pitch it right. I'm pretty excited to see the film because a proper rendition of the novel could be stunning, but then I guess you should probably never get your hopes up in those cases.