Observer Review: Life Of Pi By Yann Martel Essay, Research Paper
A fishy taleLife of PiYann MartelCanongate ?12.99, pp330About a third of the way through this novel, you find yourself being asked to believe in the following scenario: a 16-year-old Indian boy named Pi (short for ‘Piscine’ – don’t ask) has been cast overboard from a sinking ship. The ship had a cargo of zoo animals and the boy finds himself in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra (which the hyena is eating alive) an orang-utan and a Bengal tiger hiding under a tarpaulin. They are drifting thousands of miles from land, and there are sharks circling the boat. The orang-utan is looking distinctly seasick; the boy is trying to work out an effective way of catching flying fish, while he dwells on the chances of his avoiding the zebra’s fate.In recent weeks, in the literary pages, there have been reports of the death of magic realism, that catch-all genre of Eighties exoticism spawned by the loose global grouping of Márquez and Rushdie and Calvino. On the evidence of Yann Martel’s second novel it would seem that these reports have been greatly exaggerated.Having just about convinced his reader of the possibility of Pi being on the boat itself, Martel, a Canadian, then endeavours to sustain his fantastical survival story for 300-odd pages. The real trick of this book is that he almost succeeds.The story is given all the apparatus of a yarn. It begins with an authorial note about the difficulties of writing second books when the first has sunk with barely a ripple. The writer narrator travels to Tamil Nadu, dreaming of a tea plantation on which to write his great Portuguese (don’t ask) novel, but the book goes nowhere, and he mails it to a mythical address in Siberia. Casting around for ideas he is directed towards an Indian man who lives in Canada, and whose life, it is suggested, is something close to being the greatest story ever told. All the narrator will have to do is write it down.The man is Pi (3.14 to his mates) and the story is the story of his seven months in the boat with the tiger (who soon sees off the remainder of the floating menagerie). Before he is set adrift Pi has been a spiritual adventurer; his travels with his zoo-owning father bring him into contact with Christians and Muslims and Hindus, and he embraces all religions with similar fervour. When he curses it is thus to: ‘Jesus, Mary, Mohammed and Vishnu!’Undoubtedly, on the boat, he needs all the divine help he can muster. Having gone through various panicky survival strategies in the first few hours – pushing the tiger (called Richard Parker – don’t ask) overboard – he decides his only hope is to try to show him who is the alpha male in their particular highly restrictive jungle. This he proceeds to attempt with the help mainly of a ship’s whistle.Martel has large amounts of intellectual fun with outrageous fable. The novel occasionally develops little disquisitions on the idea of faith, on the limits of credulity or the nature of nature; it asks you to find reference points in Robert Louis Stevenson and Blake, the Bible and the Ramayana.Mostly, it dramatises and articulates the possibilities of storytelling, which for this writer is a kind of extremist high-wire act: almost every time he looks as if he is about to fall, he contemplates instead a thrilling handstand, or swallows a sword. Though this performance eventually becomes a bit tiresome, you cannot help but admire its showmanship. There is also some useful practical advice: should you ever find yourself alone in a dinghy with a man-eating tiger never forget to blow your whistle at full blast and be sure to puke on the edges of your territory.