Yann Martel

"Life of Pi"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson SEP 30, 2003)

It is no wonder that Canadian author Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi has been short listed for this year's prestigious U.K. Booker Prize for Fiction. This is definitely a novel in the broadest sense of the word. If it's anything, it is unique. According to the book jacket copy, "This is a novel of such rare and wondrous storytelling that it may, as one character claims, make you believe in God." Could a reader ask for anything more? Conversion by fiction without leaving your living room.

Read excerptLife of Pi is destined to become, if not this year's Booker winner, certainly a cult classic. The main character, Pi, tells the story, and the narration has an immediacy and a conversational tone that makes it accessible and easy to digest. The writing is straightforward and innocent in a way that is entertaining and highly engaging.

The cover, with its children's picture book illustration, gives the "action" part of the story away. A young boy, Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel or PI, named for a swimming pool in Paris, along with a Bengal tiger, with the equally odd name of Richard Parker, this due to a clerical error, are shipwrecked, castaways in a small boat on the vast Pacific Ocean. We know that they will ultimately survive, evidenced by the book in our hands, but their journey has an edge-of-the-seat suspense that rarely makes for dull reading. Surviving both the elements and the natural instincts of a man-eating beast creates serious tension that seldom lets up.

When we first meet Pi in early chapters, he is an adolescent drawn deeply to things and thoughts religious. Though his father is an atheist, Pi has become a practicing Hindu, and he also is attending a Catholic school. His struggles are around both obtaining a prayer rug as well as becoming baptized. Martel, through Pi, discusses the nature of religion and religions in a way that is thought provoking, regardless of what you do or do not believe.

Pi's father is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a zoo in Pondicherry, India, and many of the early chapters are insightful and fascinating essays on animal behavior. These alternate with the discussions concerning religion.

Early in the novel, we discover that Pi, after surviving his ocean ordeal, ultimately ends up in Canada where in college he majors appropriately in religious studies and zoology. He explains the way in which religions and zoos are similar, both steeped, he says, in illusion. While a believer, Pi shows no narrowness of thought. He is curious, always open. Dogma and simple explanations are conspicuously absent in the philosophical musings he shares with the reader.

The only criticism a reviewer might bring to this book is that it drags a bit at the end. "I was weary of my situation," Pi says toward the conclusion of his stressful journey, and the reader becomes just a bit weary as well. But this is a minor fault in a work that is otherwise guaranteed to give pleasure and delight. The book's truly novel nature keeps one reading and hoping that Martel will keep on writing. He is someone definitely for anyone's short list.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5,194 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Life of Pi at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Yann MartelYann Martel was born in Spain in 1963 of peripatetic Canadian parents. He grew up in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, France, Ontario and Mexico, and has continued travelling as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India. After studying philosophy at Trent University and while doing various odd jobs—tree planting, dishwashing, working as a security guard—he began to write. He is the prize-winning author of The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, a collection of short stories, and of Self, a novel, both of them published internationally. Life of Pi is the winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for fiction in 2001. He has been living off his writing since the age of 27. He divides his time between yoga, writing and volunteering in a palliative care unit. Yann Martel lives in Montreal.
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