No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, January 17, 2009

#2: Life of Pi -- Yann Martel

Our encounters always leave me weary of the glum contentment that characterises my life. What were those words he used that struck me? Ah, yes: 'dry, yeastless factuality', 'the better story'. (p.63)

This review contains major spoilers for the novel. (And is rather disjointed, a collection of thoughts and opinions rather than a fluent review. Never mind!)

In which a boy and a tiger cross the Pacific. Or not.

This was a reread, for bookclub: I remembered a lot of the plot, but had forgotten how much else was in there: long descriptions of changing sea and sky, the practicalities of survival at sea, the role of religion, the wealth of detail about animal behaviour and physiology. (I now have a name for the snort/sneeze which tigers, and my cat, produce: prusten.) Pi's fascination with imaginary ecologies -- the lifeboat, the island -- and his boyish enthusiasm for 'who'd win in a fight between X and Y' (toger v. shark, hyena v. orang-utan) is a product of his upbringing as the privileged son of a zoo-keeper. I'm less convinced by his faith, or lack thereof: before leaving India, he's fascinated by religion and participates in Islamic, Christian and Hindu practices, but on the lifeboat he only really seems to rediscover God after he's left the terrible island. Wouldn't he rely more strongly on his faith throughout his ordeal? Or does he feel abandoned by God? Or does he feel that his actions have damned him somehow?

There's some masterful storytelling here -- the way that we don't find out until a third of the way through the book that 'Richard Parker' is actually a Bengal tiger. (Probably significant that 'Richard Parker' is also the name of the cabin boy murdered and eaten (1884) by survivors of the wreck of the Mignonette, resulting in a famous court case described in The Custom of the Sea by Neil Hanson).

Life of Pi is occasionally self-indulgent and self-conscious, for instance when Pi muses 'could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less?'(p.285) Yes, yes you can -- especially if some of your chapters are a couple of words while others are pages long -- very clever, have a gold star. The novel's framed as a story the author heard from its protagonist, but it's not clear whether said protagonist, Pi Patel, is aware that the author knows the alternate version (as described on the tapes provided by the Japanese marine investigators). And I'd forgotten that right at the end of the first section -- Pi's childhood, punctuated by the author's interaction with adult Pi -- there's the reassurance: "this story has a happy ending". We need that. And we need the reminder at the end of the book that any story, told, is partly interpretation and belief: 'the world isn't just the way it is, it's the way we understand it'. (p. 302)

The story fits together better than I'd remembered: as a child, Pi's father decides to show his sons how fearsome the animals in the zoo can be. There's a gruesome staged tiger-feeding episode that clearly resonates with Pi, not least because his brother keeps taunting him 'you're the next goat'. The whole story can be read as his refusal to be the next goat, the next victim: his determination to be the super-alpha, to train aggressors to submit to him. (The circus-style 'training' of Richard Parker can be read as an exercise in conquering one's own savage impulses, or as a metaphor for standing up to the cook.) That first section also discusses the evils of anthropomorphism, which throws the shipwreck narrative into a harsher light.

It's also important that Pi, pre- and post-shipwreck, is a lifelong vegetarian: Life of Pi can be read as a study on the evils of a carnivorous (and cannibalistic) diet. Once he's tasted meat, once he's killed for it -- perhaps even once he's eaten ship's biscuit that contains animal fat -- he's altered, beginning a descent into 'a level of savagery I never imagined possible'. (p.197)

The account Pi gives to the marine investigators -- a story of murder and cannibalism, rather than of one boy and his tiger -- is a gruesome one: it's an act of mercy for the investigators to believe his initial account, rather than the 'truth' that Pi stood by as his mother was murdered, and then killed and ate her murderer.

This was the terrible cost of Richard Parker. He gave me a life, my own, but at the expense of taking one ... Something in me died then that has never come back to life. (p. 255)


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  2. Anonymous6:19 am

    thanks for sharing.