Life Of Pi
by Yann Martel
Writing about this book, it’s hard for me to avoid being either very personal about it or to make only the broadest of generalizations. Strange, really, because it seems I don’t get as moved by novels as I used to be when I was younger, or if I do, it doesn’t stay with me for too long. Obviously I still have great reading experiences; I just finished this novel by Jonathan Coe called The Rotter’s Club, a fantastic book and a highly recommendable one. It certainly touched me in many ways, it’s one of those books that it’s impossible to put down once you get started. Or well, at 400 pages, that may be a minus, actually. And while I truly enjoyed that one, and I can’t wait to pick up the promised sequel, I don’t see it having any profound impact on me in the future. One can’t tell, obviously, but I suspect it won’t.
Life Of Pi, on the other hand, is different. And this is where I either get too personal or I start sounding like the blurb inside the book. Or I do something else.
Good literature, I guess, treads that fine line between the enlightening — in whatever way — and good old storytelling. The trick is surely to balance it: you don’t want a plot that moves on and on but still it leaves the reader pretty much the same as before, you want to encounter something special. On the other hand, you don’t want a book that’s just plain clever for the sake of it either, there are enough of those, and while they may be conceptually interesting, they’re rarely a good read, so to speak.
Anyway, I’m digressing, and this doesn’t concern the novel at hand. Well, it does, but not specifically. What concerns this novel is, say, the plot. And what a great plot it is! If I tell you — and I will — you may think it sounds a bit dumb, which would be a very wrong assumption to make. I made that same mistake, mind, when I first was confronted by the story, and I didn’t expect too much of it when I started on this. But there you go. I’ve been wrong before.
Pi — Piscine Molitor Patel, that is, named after a French swimming pool — is a young boy whose family runs a zoo in India. When the zoo encounters economic difficulties, the family decides to move to Canada. The boat they travel on goes down and Pi is the sole survivor, left alone on a lifeboat. Well, along with a tiger and some other few selected animals. And while the other animals fall prey to each other after a short while, both the tiger and Pi survive to search for land through a couple hundred days at sea — and a few days on a wonderful, strange island, a stunning high point in the novel — all the while having to learn to co-exist in some weird and seemingly unparalleled world. And that’s it, basically.
Or, of course it’s not. There’s so much more to be found here, but it’s not in the plot per se. It is in Martel’s always challenging, but always playful and ever-inventive way around the situation he has created — both the plot itself, and the narrative as a whole. Layers of layers are added of narrative uncertainties — regarding who are actually telling the story, regarding chronology and interpretations, and, pivotally, whether the story — and even the telling of it — is valid at all. Constantly undermined and challenged, the story — or stories would be better — floats around and shifts shape and color all the time, and the reader must interpret and reinterpret his or her readings over and over again. If it’s never quite possible to grasp the full story, that is simply because the text doesn’t seem to offer it, or at least makes it highly uncertain which version one should choose.
All of this, I’m sure, is enough to turn off everyone but the most die-hard literature student. That’s surely not my intention, though, so I’d be quick to argue that Martel never lets any of this get in the way of the joy of storytelling, as it is. On the contrary, this complex (but never off-putting) scheme is rather the result of his love of storytelling, than simply done for the sake of some pretentious, academic show-off. While the build-up is both clever and rewarding, it is so only in strict conjunction with the telling of the story as a whole, and certainly not either despite it or in spite of it. This is storytelling in the classic sense, where the idea of the author is both present and enigmatic, in the tradition of everyone from Sterne and Twain to Hemingway and Borges and up to Irving. And beyond. Referred to as “magic realism,” Martel surely shares more than the passing nod to that all-encompassing movement, but really, that term serves more to confuse than it does anything else.
Always funny and brilliant, Life Of Pi is equally and as importantly a poignant and deeply moving novel that refuses to give up either hope or belief. Dwelling and reflective, Martel never drags his feet or looses his readers’ attention, always having another slight turn of events and a turn of phrase to ensure the reader stays in this wonderful world. I remember now why I started to love reading books in the first place, that deep immersion in another world that still helped make sense to this world, my world. That strange and beautiful feeling you get when someone put into words what you knew was always there but never quite could capture. I had forgotten all about that, it is so rare to find a book like this, but that is the kind of book that Life Of Pi is.