Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel


The first section of author Yann Martel’s Life of Pi contain the narrator’s childhood story. Piscine Molitor Patel tells of a boyhood in Pondicherry, India, spent swimming, living with his zookeeping family, and searching for and finding god(s) claimed by varied religious faiths (he accepts them all). The author fills ninety-plus pages where thirty would have done. I was ready to toss the book at page sixty, but skipped ahead to confirm that the tiger pictured in a lifeboat on the front cover with a lone human companion does make an appearance.

During part two the book becomes interesting. Protagonist Pi finds himself on a life raft, cast off a sinking cargo ship en route to Canada; his family, and old life, obliterated. Pi makes shipmates of a hyena, an orangutan, an injured zebra, and a tiger. So starts an unusual, readable, interesting plot, punctuated by fear, hope, death, and spiritual struggle. This section of the books has readable, elegant prose, blotched too-often by truly horrible passages along the lines of, “the flying fish jumped out of the water and into the boat. The fish flayed around like a fish out of water.” This is not a quote, but it is easy to find passages as poor and clich├ęd. At first I wondered if the author was trying to be ironic.

The third section of the book is a short thirty-two pages, but like the first section it is twice as long as it should be. Rescued from his existence on a lifeboat with only a tiger for company, representatives of the Japanese shipping concern which owned the crashed vessel come to Pi with questions, wanting an explanation for the failure at sea. They don’t believe the fantastical tale Pi spins. Pi offers a base and believable account of human passengers and their animal behavior. Pi’s story of tigers and impossible islands is immediately recognizable to the reader as metaphor for the true, sordid events of the Pi’s shipwreck and salvation. Inexplicably, the author underscores the connections, using the Japanese investigators to state, “Hey, this factual-sounding story is just like… .” When the investigators speak to each other in Japanese, which Pi would not understand, their evocations are printed in a special, wacky font. Any reasonable reader could make the connections, and the pandering ends the book on sour note.

Section One: C

Section Two: A-

Section Three: Z

Overall: G+

Filed under Books on June 25th, 2004