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Reviewed by:
  • Life of Pi
  • Steve Street
Life of Pi by Yann MartelHarvest/Harcourt, 2003, 336 pp., $14 (paper)

The full-frontal way in which Yann Martel addresses religious faith here will put off some readers immediately, charmed though many of those might be by his deft use of language. "To choose doubt as a way of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation," his young hero argues as, in the book's first hundred pages, he embraces three religions: his native Hinduism, Christianity and finally Islam, offering a precocious fourteen-year-old's theological overview of each. But most of the story is about the protagonist's 227-day survival at sea, and Martel's real concern is not religion but the miracle of life itself.

The first manifestation of it that he offers is a writer's miracle: in an author's note that begins the blending of literal and fictive truth that becomes the novel's central paradox, Martel tells of the particular writer's despair of having worked hard and long on a previous book that had everything but the essential, indefinable "spark of life," then rediscovering that life for the project that became Life of Pi.

The book does have that spark, which might be described as a combination of delight in rediscovery, the quiet assuredness of conviction and sheer imaginative energy. Its ninety-nine chapters (some many pages long, some only a paragraph or a sentence, one just a two-word fragment) move from Toronto to India to Mexico, though most take place on a lifeboat in the Pacific, where the boy, self-nicknamed Pi, faces what seems like certain doom. If hunger or the sea don't kill him, one of the wild zoo animals that had been traveling in the ship's hold surely will. His impossible survival with a Bengal tiger is the miracle that Martel manages to make compelling and believable.

It's a tale that's meticulously spun, despite the deceptively light prose and what sometimes seem like gimmicks (such as the unequal chapters and some typeface shifts). But what's important—the theology, Pi's upbringing by secular parents in a French-colonized enclave within the British Empire, the specific data about animal behavior from his zookeeper father that Pi recalls in order to keep the tiger at bay, the alternate version of events that constitute the book's final reversal of expectations—has been convincingly particularized and crafted. In that way the novel is the written equivalent of one of the intricate, mesmerizing designs seen in Islamic art and architecture, and it provides the "frisson" of artistic delight that Nabokov identified as the essential pleasure of reading fiction.

But if Martel's aim is the ethereal, he never forgets the world, and in addition to his fidelity to facts, Life of Pi addresses real grief, despair and human depravity. [End Page 179]

The book has sparked wildly disparate reactions. In the wake of its being awarded the 2001 Man Booker Prize, similarities to the Brazilian Moacyr Scliar's 1981 Max and the Cats seemed to jeopardize Martel's reputation. But he acknowledges his debt in the author's note, with thanks to Scliar for that "spark of life" (a line that's now a blurb on the 2003 Plume/Penguin edition of Scliar's slim novel). And the visions, as well as the sentences, are the writer's own. In both novels, the hero shares a lifeboat with a beast (Max with a jaguar, Pi with a Bengal tiger). Max sails from Germany to Brazil, Pi from India to Canada; both of them pray (but Max forgets to sometimes). Scliar's book has Nazis in it, Martel's Japanese and Mexicans. But finally, making such comparisons is absurd, a much different activity than actual reading. Certainly Martel takes pains with verisimilitude that Scliar doesn't: Max in a desperate moment "pick[s] up a fishing line (luckily, there was already bait on the hook)." But if Life of Pi has a fault, it's that all Martel's work to suspend disbelief—Pi even debates the issue—risks belaboring the point.

Better that...


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pp. 179-180
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