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17 November, 2004

Book Review: The Life of Pi

" ...this is a story that will make you believe in God."

Yann Martel's much acclaimed book "The Life of Pi", which won him the Man Booker prize in 2002, is the story of a small Indian boy trapped on board a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal Tiger, a Hyena, a zebra and an Orangutan.

But hold on. This is not another adventure story. This is not a 21st century rendering of Rudyard Kipling or George Orwell. It is a book in a genre of its own. A book where the fantasy of ideas meet the conviction of facts, where simplicity of narration meets the complexity of underlying philosophies and where the fast pace of the story meets the traditional slowness of the novel. Yann Martel's book is all about contrasts and contradictions, and how all that can be balanced in a book and also in life.

The first thing that will impress you about the book is its narration - or rather the absence of it. From the word go, Martel manages to pull the magic trick of making the whole book come alive in your mind’s eye. Some would say that Martel's narration is strong and vivid. I refuse to accept. A strong narration makes the reader notice the sentences, words and punctuations. In Life of Pi you notice nothing of that. Martel has metamorphosed images into words and put them inside the book. The moment you open the book, these words spring out as images and the whole story plays like a movie in front of you.

Then there is the breadth of issues that Martel touches upon - from the swimming pools of Paris to the religious pools of India and from the philosophy behind zoos to the philosophy of religions. Martel paints a clear picture in each case, with strokes that speak of a masterly hand and a picture that leaves everlasting impressions on the reader's mind. As you follow the first person account of Pi, from his childhood in a zoo in Pondicherry, to the voyage over the pacific and finally to Toronto, you begin to envy his life.

The description of a zoo leaves you wishing you were born in one. I quote from the book for evidence - "...To me, it was a paradise on earth. I have nothing but the fondest memories of growing up in a zoo. I lived the life of a prince...My alarm clock during childhood was a pride of lions...Breakfast was punctuated by the shrieks and cries of howler monkeys, hill mynahs and moluccan cockatoos...pink flamingoes or black swans or one-wattled cassowaries, or peach faced lovebirds, Nanday conures, orange-fronted parakeets..." You cannot resist a smile at Pi's simple, yet convincing argument in favor of zoos. If you ever subscribed to the "anti-zoo" school, you can no longer do that now. As you grow up with Pi and discover afresh the rationale behind Hinduism, the philosophy of love behind Christianity or the simple teaching of universal brotherhood behind Islam, your mind reaches new levels of understanding for the three religions.

The book reaches a climax with the dramatic entry of Richard Parker. From here this gripping tale becomes "unputdownable", and you find yourself turning page after page as Pi, Richard Parker and others face the odds of the Pacific Ocean. The excitement and tension in the pages rises like a wave and fills your mind.

“…Richard Parker, is that you? It’s so hard to see. Oh, that this rain would stop! …Jesus, Mary, Mohammed and Vishnu, how good to see you Richard Parker! Don’t give up, please. Come to the life boat…” You read these words eagerly, thanking that the small boy is not alone on the boat. And then you turn the page to find out who Richard Parker is – and a chill runs down your spine.

When you finally put the book down, a strange happiness and optimism invades you. You are compelled to draw parallels from the life of Pi to your own life, and suddenly the realization dawns on you that through patience and devotion we can conquer even the most seemingly insurmountable odds. You realize that this is what Martel has been trying to tell you all through the book – to keep an open mind, have faith in god and be patient till your turn comes.

Yann Martel says in the beginning that this book was born because he was hungry. We wish Mr. Martel an eternal hunger of this type, so that he may continue to produce more such books in the future – and enrich our hearts and minds.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Anil said...

I had picked up this book with some trepidation at the amount of hype surrounding this book, especially back in India. But in the end it was more than worth it. Loved the way he told the story...racy yet not vacuous...suffused with a gentle humor. Something worth reading a second time and there are not many books like that.

17 November, 2004 19:24  
Blogger Pragya said...

What about the fascinating ending where Pi is being interviewed by the insurance agent? That, in my opinion was the most surprising twist, akin to Rashomon, about truth and perception...certainly leaves the story open to interpretation.

17 November, 2004 23:53  
Blogger Geetanjali said...

I was asked to read this book by a friend in Germany - since I had exhausted my own supply of books I attacked it eagerly...was completely entranced by it initially, but somehow I lost interest after the first 100 pages or so...perhaps it was the hype that surroudned it after having won the prestigious Booker that made me expect more and get disappointed easily. The way you've critiqued it (as well as the others who've read it) makes me think I should give it a second chance.

18 November, 2004 10:54  
Blogger dinesh said...

Here's an interesting article on Yann Martel. I thought the book was another exoticizing (is that a word?) stunt.

22 November, 2004 11:47  

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