Life of Pi

Reviewed: July 23, 2004
By: Yann Martel
Publisher: Vintage Books
356 pages, $21.00

Much has been written about Life of Pi and the surrealistic journey of the boy and tiger on the Atlantic Ocean. Pi Patel endures a 227 day confinement in a lifeboat in the company of a 450 pound Royal Bengal tiger after the ship which is taking his family to North America sinks under mysterious circumstances.

That's all in part two of the book. It begins on page 107 and runs to page 318. It's really quite good reading and, yes, it does feel a bit like The Little Prince at times, even though it is really nothing like that book in terms of its story. The middle portion of the tale makes a believable case for surviving at sea in a lifeboat with minimal resources and a dangerous travelling companion.

Except for the strange events in chapter 92, wherein Pi makes “an exceptional biological discovery” the events of the narrative seem very much a part of the ordinary, everyday world. Odd as it all is, Pi's story seems like it could happen.

That's not my favorite part of the book though. There are other things I like more.

I like the Author's Note at the beginning, which cleverly blends the real state of Yann Martel's actual mind with the state of the fictional Yann Martel's mind and invites you to believe that everything which is about to follow is the result of a writer's quest for a good story.

This is such a classic device. Whether it's Joseph Conrad sitting around the table with his seafaring friends and hearing Marlow tell the tale of “Youth” or Edgar Rice Burroughs getting the story of Tarzan from “one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other” it's always a nice trick to pull off when it's well done. Martel has mastered the trick. He can tell us on page 107 that “This story has a happy ending” and still make us stick around for the rest of it.

We imagine him tracking down the now middle aged Pi Patel living an ordinary life with wife and children and dog in Toronto, and persuading him to tell the tale of his strange adventure.

Piscine Molitor Patel's tale actually begins in India, where he spends his early years living in a zoo, where he acquires his name, and where he develops his unique approach to religion. This is my favorite part of the book. There are delightful things in here: the tale of how he became Pi; the struggle for his soul by a trio of religious leaders; the oddities of life in a zoo. Coming to the end of this section of the tale I was almost sad to realize that I was leaving that all behind to go to sea.

In the end, we return to the tale of the questing writer, just to track down the “official” versions of Pi's story and see how confused it made the people who had to try and reconcile it with common sense and the real world. That was a lot of fun too, perhaps a bit anti-climactic, but still a nice bookend to the opening chapters.

Martel got hit with accusations of plagiarism after his book became successful, accusations based on the work of a South American writer who also had a boy stranded in a boat with a big cat. That's a bit like saying that Burroughs' Tarzan is nothing more than a swipe of Kipling's Mowgli. There's a lot more to Pi than the ocean voyage, and it's well worth the time it takes to explore his story.