Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Vintage Canada, 2002, 368 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-676-97377-9

(Read in French as L’histoire de Pi, translated by Nicole and Émile Martel)

As a convinced genre reader, I look at general literature with deep suspicion: In a mirror image of all mainstream readers convinced that there is nothing of interest in genre fiction, I frown at literary fiction and ask if something can be worthwhile if it’s not genre fiction.

While even a cursory explanation of Life of Pi suggests that it’s not exactly mainstream literature, it has won the 2002 Man Booker prize and, as such, pretty much represented the literary establishment for a solid year. It sold briskly, earned critical accolades and was read by mass audiences. Not bad for a book written in English by a French-Canadian author.

It is, nominally, a story of survival about a shipwrecked boy stuck on a lifeboat with scant supplies and a full-sized tiger. It’s hailed by the over-narrator (who’s not the boy, at least not always) as a story fit to give you faith in God’s existence. It’s a story of meshing cultures, careful observation and improbable coincidences. A second level of reading is even suggested late in the book.

But here’s the kicker: You can read it as a fantasy or as a thriller. Yann Martel has fashioned an ingenious cross-genre story with wide appeal for very different groups of readers. The opening note, written as from the author, imperceptibly takes us from reality to fiction, setting up the level of fantasy that soon becomes essential to the book. Nearly a hundred pages of somewhat realistic fiction follow, as protagonist Piscine (“Pool”, in French) describes his early childhood experiences, halfway between his father’s zoo and his town’s religious establishment. Careful details pepper the narrative with an astonishing accessibility, setting up Pi’s character and the offbeat quality of his life. Numerous digressions about zoology and religion add interest to the book.

Then catastrophe strikes and Pi finds himself shipwrecked on a lifeboat with numerous animal companions —including an adult tiger. By this time in the story, we know (though Pi’s education) that tigers are truly dangerous animals: spending five seconds on a tiny lifeboat with one seems impossible, let alone entire days. But that’s what happens, as the other animals are “removed” and Pi learns how to survive. Early on, it’s mentioned how he’ll spend more than half a year drifting on the ocean. Will Pi manage to keep the tiger away? Will he have enough food to last? What happens once thing start breaking down?

Through a careful accumulation of credible details, Martel will make you believe in the reality of Pi’s unreal situation. Through a techno-thrillerish density of technical details and a clever number of observations, Pi’s struggles are credibly described. The result is a gripping section that scarcely lets the reader pause for a break.

As the months at sea slowly pass, the reality of the situation slowly gives way to fantasy. It eventually leads to a lengthy dream-like passage in which the normal rules of reality take a leave of absence. A mysterious island is discovered, a terrible discovery is made and an escape ensues; what it all meant will be left to students struggling with their essays about the book.

It concludes with a twist, as an alternate explanation is quickly delivered. But as even the characters remark, the tiger is the better story. And so it goes.

I’m not terribly interested in delving deep in my critic’s brain to find out if I truly liked Life of Pi (hey, it’s been a long month), but even if my appreciation of the book is partially rooted in my surprise at how interesting a Man Booker winner could be, that’s more than good enough. Even if the adventure story is misdirection and metaphor for a far more awful true story, see if I care: I got my entertainment out of the book, and it doesn’t bother me if it’s a superficial way to read an award-winning mainstream book. Life of Pi is written to allow several interpretations, but even my fellow literalists will come away pleased by the story as it is presented on the page. The cover blurb by the San Diego Union Tribune ends up as an eerily appropriate exit line: This story may not make you believe in God, but it may make you believe in literature.

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