Life of Pi was a book so regularly spotted on my dad’s bookshelf when I was growing up that I have the image of the white boat with the dark boy and massive tiger curled up inside it forever burnt into my memory. Despite this frequent exposure to it, I never really felt the urge to read it. I only became familiar with the story itself after watching Ang Lee’s recent Oscar-winning adaptation: a visually stunning film, with a moving story. I don’t remember it fondly. I think I watched it a little too close to my mum’s death, meaning I felt the loss and heartbreak that Pi experiences ever the more than I would have if I saw it now, for example. I’m glad I didn’t read the book at the same time – the line ‘to lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you’ choked me up alone. In my head it’s a film I associate with grief, which is the unfortunate consequence of watching the wrong kind of film or reading the wrong kind of book too close to a traumatic event.
Still, it made its way on to the reading list, but I didn’t pick it up for a long time. In fact an ex-boyfriend actually borrowed my (dad’s) copy and read it before me, which is remarkable considering that was probably the only fiction book he’d read all year. (If he’s reading this – which is very unlikely – please do consider that a warm-hearted jibe.) Said ex-boyfriend finished it feeling unenthusiastic, but I went into it with an open mind. After all, it won the Booker in 2002, which will always work in any book’s favour to me. I wanted to avoid spoilers in this review but it seems prudent to discuss the twist at the end of the novel, as it forms a big part of the reader’s experience (if we can call it a twist).
The book is prefaced with a foreword, written by the ‘author’ – I presume this isn’t Yann Martel, but rather a writer within the confines of the story. To avoid confusion with Martel, I shall refer to this fictional author as the Writer (the same name he goes by in the film adap, I believe). The Writer is desperate for fresh inspiration for a novel and travels around India looking for it – until he is told to go back to Canada and speak to a man named Pi Patel, who has a remarkable story about surviving 227 days on the Pacific Ocean when he was a teenager, cooped up in a small lifeboat with nothing but the basic supplies – oh, and with a fully-grown, carnivorous, 450lb Bengal tiger on board. As the Writer begins to tell the story, the narrative switches to Pi’s first person viewpoint, although the Writer occasionally interjects the story with his observations about interviewing Pi, with comments about Pi’s house, cooking, family, and the man himself.
And so the story of Pi Patel begins; christened Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a swimming pool but adopting the nickname ‘Pi’ after seeking to liberate himself from the unfortunate schoolyard nickname ‘Pissing’, Pi grows up in Ponticherry, a French part of India, on a zoo. When he is 16 his family relocate to Canada and board a ship with their various zoo animals but, tragically, it sinks. Pi is the sole survivor. But that’s not quite right – he’s the sole human survivor, I should say, for he finds himself in a lifeboat with a zebra, and quickly an orangutan, hyena and Bengal tiger turn up to share his quarters. While the hyena, zebra and orangutan bump each other off fairly quickly (and rather gruesomely, it must be said), Pi is left to share his space with a bad tempered, man-eating tiger from his zoo in Pondicherry named Richard Parker.
It’s not an ideal scenario for him, and the odds are stacked against him – though remarkably, Pi endures the entire journey with the tiger on board, relying on his extensive zoo knowledge in how to train and cohabit with various creatures, even the ones that would surely be desperate enough to eat you in a matter of days. As you might imagine Richard Parker is initially an enemy and complication Pi wants rid of – whether that be by pushing him overboard, killing him or letting him die of natural causes (though he reflects none of these methods are set for success) – but later Pi realises that having to manage his presence, and indeed, having him there as a companion, keeps him distracted and clinging on to survival. Along the way Pi battles with dehydration, heatstroke, blindness, sores and extreme hunger (goodbye vegetarianism). To avoid spoilers, I won’t tell you the ‘twist’ – but rest assured it’s interesting, and challenges you to select your own beliefs carefully.
The entire novel is beautifully written (as I would expect from a Booker winner), but I’ve read beautifully written books before that I wouldn’t necessarily give five stars. No, this one got the full whammy for one main reason – and that’s because I went through my hour-long commute through London with it, which involved walking to Clapham Common tube station, getting on the Northern line, changing on to another branch of the Northern line at Camden Town, and getting off at Finchley Central – but I was so absorbed in the book that I did the whole journey on auto-pilot. For that hour (and for the same hour home), I was fully convinced that I was on the Pacific Ocean in the company of a 16-year-old boy and a Bengal tiger, not at all in a stuffy underground tube in a crowded and polluted city. It’s such a simple feat that all books should aim for (and I’m sure the best do), but it was remarkable how long it had been since I’d felt that absorbed in something.
I’m not sure why my ex didn’t like it. I chatted briefly with him while I was reading and I think he was put off by the early, God-y pages – something I wasn’t so big on either – but he remarked not being that interested as the book went on, whereas I felt the opposite. I can only conclude that he wanted more from it, whereas I was satisfied with it as it was.
A quick look at Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning film, then.
Renowned for being a visual feast, Lee created something of a CGI masterpiece with the film adaptation; it must have been difficult enough animating the tiger, let alone a blue whale hurtling through an iridescent ocean (pictured above). The plot is very similar to the book, with a couple of subplots shoehorned in, like a romance Pi experiences as a young boy. Other moments, including some of the more surreal scenes, were removed, which makes sense when it comes to magic realism, as I’m not sure how you can convey magic subtly without the benefit of a narrative voice guiding you through it.
The twist at the end, too, is a little more black and white. But I won’t say anything for fear of spoiling. So I’ll leave it there – as I mentioned, five stars from me. Certainly worth a read – and a watch.
[Coming next: Under the Skin by Michel Faber]