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In which Netty drifts away with a boy called Pi and a tiger called Richard Parker …

March 2, 2013

ImageIf I’m ever asked the question, “Do you prefer cats or dogs?”, I always reply, “Birds”. I had a couple of felines when I was a very young tacker, and latterly I have developed a certain affection for canines. And I’m a regular donor to the very worthy Lost Dogs Home because I strongly believe animals should not be abandoned and mistreated (did I mention I’m a vegan? No? Not recently?), and Graeme Smith’s mob out there do a lot of good work (check them out at http://dogshome.com/ if you’ve got some spare dosh burning a hole in your pocket).

I’m not sure if young Piscine Molitor Patel – or Pi, as he dubs himself – the eponymous narrator of Yann Martel’s 2002 Man Booker prizewinning novel Life Of Pi, is necessarily a huge fan of cats, either. But through a remarkable twist of fate, Pi, an Indian zookeeper’s teenage son, ends up sharing a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker, adrift in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days and the majority of the book’s 300-plus pages.

As regular followers of this blog know, I’m not much of a fan of spoilers (Andy is a bit more gung-ho about this than I am). However, be warned – I won’t be skirting around the details here. With the Ang Lee-directed movie version of the book having been out and about the traps for a good couple of months now, I’d be very surprised if anyone with even the slightest interest in the book and/or film is unfamiliar with its plot. As I reckon the rewards of Life Of Pi lie firmly in the writing, knowing how it all unfolds is not going to spoil the experience for its potential readers. I promise.

The novel opens with an “author’s note” where Martel details how he came across the story of the life and times of Pi Patel (“A story that will make you believe in God,” an old man tells him in an Indian coffee house). Then the adult Pi takes over, tracing his history back from present-day Toronto to the 1970s Pondicherry of his youth, interspersed with Martel’s italicised notes on his meetings with Pi.

Troubled by the country’s political climate, Pi’s father decides to sell the family zoo, its animals and move his wife and two sons to start a new life in Canada. But only a few days into the family’s journey – aboard a Japanese cargo tanker, along with a raft of animals to be distributed to various American zoos – the ship sinks. A trio of crew members throw Pi into a lifeboat, where he is inexplicably joined by a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan and – initially unbeknownst to the others – a tiger. As the other animals meet their respective fates, it is just Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker, who remain. Thanks to the lifeboat supplies – including an invaluable survival manual – Pi fast transforms into a hardy seafarer, relying on his newly acquired nous and wits. Boy and tiger form an unlikely, touching bond as they battle the elements, the exposure, the lack of food and fresh water and each other as the lifeboat makes its slow journey across the ocean, eventually coming to land off the coast of Mexico.

In the brief final section – most notable for its almost-slapstick, laugh-out-loud humour – two Japanese ministry of transport representatives track down Pi in a Mexican hospital, determined to get to the bottom of the ship’s sinking and incredulous about its sole survivor’s tale.

There’s not a lot not to like about Pi and his life. In the narrator, Martel has created a memorable character for the ages and given him an original, thoroughly engaging voice in the process. There’s a fair bit of fancypants post-modernism applied to the novel’s structure, topped off with a liberal sprinkling of magic realism, but it’s a largely successful ploy that rarely falls flat on its face.

My sole criticism – and it’s a relatively minor one – is that I felt the book ran out of puff nearing the end of Pi’s and Richard Parker’s Pacific journey. Funny that after 150-odd pages I was thoroughly accepting of a boy sharing a lifeboat with a tiger for the best part of a year, but that in the credulity stakes I baulked at the island of carnivorous algae upon which Pi and Richard Parker briefly wash up. The passage where a blinded Pi meets another shipwreck survivor is also scarcely believable – and I use that word in the loosest sense of the term. Certainly it prompted for me a sense of Pi being an unreliable narrator, for the first time – but perhaps that was the author’s intention. And after the lengthy depiction of the oceanic voyage – what could have been rendered a mundane, day-to-day survivor’s tale, but elevated to the realm of the magical by its use of beautifully crafted, lyrical language, with nary a word wasted – it all comes to a rather abrupt end, with details of how the lifeboat finally hit terra firma left sketchy. At this point, the persistently sky-high quality of plot and writing can only amplify those few weaknesses. This is one of the best books I’ve read – maybe ever.

So why did Life Of Pi lie languishing on my bookshelf for, uh, 13 years? Hard to say, really. Certainly I was inspired to dig it out on the back of the release of the film, which I’ll now be scuttling off to the nearest cinema to check out, tout suite. All in all It’s not a bad way to kick off a year of reading – and hopefully the other 11 titles I dust off throughout the course of this year provide me with as much pleasure.

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