Thursday, August 11, 2011
Book Review: Life of Pi
I've just finished reading 'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel. What can I say? I truly mean it when I say, there are no words to describe what a beautiful story this actually is. The writer, Mr. Martel did not simply choose the a random subject to write on. Who knows how many years of research it might have taken him to come up with such a masterpiece?
The novel is divided into three parts, which are further broken down into smaller, and sometimes really long chapters. The first part is entitled Toronto and Pondicherry, the second; The Pacific, and the third; Benito Juarez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico. Let's look into these different parts in detail.
1. Toronto and Pondicherry
I suppose if you share my fascination with these two things; the Indian diaspora in western countries, and the influence of the French in French India, then you might find this part very compelling.
The narrator, named Piscine Molitor Patel reminisces his childhood in Pondicherry, India as he studies in a prestigious university in Toronto, Canada. He does very well in his studies and is always top in his class. But life was not so perfect when he was young.
The narrator was constantly made fun of because of his unusual name. He was actually names after a famous swimming pool in France. He was also bullied by his playful elder brother, Ravi. Finally in secondary school, he made up a nickname for himself, Pi, in order to avoid further name-calling.
A beautiful aspect of this part of the novel is that Pi's father owned a famous zoo in Pondicherry. Pi grew up surrounded by animals. The writer gives beautiful, detailed descriptions of how Pi viewed these different animals.
But that is not the only beautiful part of the novel. Despite being born and raised as a Hindu, Pi became fascinated with Islam and Christianity as well. His parents only come to know about this after the family bump into a priest, an imam and a pastor on the beach where the argue on what religion Pi is practicing. As an innocent child, Pi cannot understand these men's arguments as his only intention is to get closer to God, love Him and do good in this world.
This could be a good lesson for religious fanatics who think only their religion is supreme to others. Due to his innocence, Pi fails to see how can a good human being go to hell just because he professes another religion despite doing so much good in the world and treating others with respect. The writer certainly proves his fascination with religion and spirituality in this part of the book.
Soon, the political scenario in India turns bad and Pi's family decide to migrate to Toronto to start a new life with their fellow Tamil people who were moving there from both India and Sri Lanka in big numbers. Pi has a bad experience on the ship carrying his family there, along with the animals that they plan to sell since the zoo is now closed. The Japanese officers and the Taiwanese crew members are rude and arrogant. Pi cannot wait to arrive at Toronto.
But something happens and the ship sinks. Pi managed to survive on a lifeboat along with a Bengal tiger, a orangutan, a zebra and a hyena. Thus, begins the second part of the novel.
2. The Pacific
I have to admit that I did not really enjoy this part of the novel. The once beautiful and colourful story was not morbid and almost monotonous. The writer's obsession with specific details of Pi's turmoils and suffering at sea definitely bored me a bit. But I was still engaged to know what happens of Pi's fate since I had fallen in love with the character by now.
The hyena, being the most ruthless and evil creature on board notices the zebra's injured leg. It rears it out and spend the next few days eating the poor zebra bit by bit. Then, the hyena also kills the orangutan, who was rather protective towards Pi.
But the hyena is no match for Richard Parker, the mighty Bengal tiger, who kills the hyena and eats it. As the food and water on the lifeboat grow short in number, Pi starts to learn how to fish by reading a survivor's manual he found. Pi soon is thankful that he has Richard Parker since he does not feel lonely, despite being terrified most of the time. Pi feeds him with some mice of the lifeboat in order to tame it.
As Pi gets more skillful at fishing, he feeds Richard Parker some of this catchings as well. However, the tiger has a big appetite and always eats up lots of the food.
An interesting part of the book is when Pi and Richard Parker come across a school of flying fish. The tiger simply catches many fishes with his paws. Pi also has a feast with all his catchings.
In order to establish that he is the alpha animal on the lifeboat, Pi pretends to be a ringmaster like in a circus by yelling out loud and blowing a whistle as loudly as possible to avoid being killed by the tiger.
At one point, Pi becomes very weak and is ready to die. Things get worst as he becomes blind due to his weakness. Then, the most peculiar thing happens. He meets a blind Frenchman in the sea and they become friends, talking about food and many other things. Just as Pi feels fortunate that he has found a human companion as he is about to leave the world forever, a starving Richard Parker kills the Frenchman and eats him.
But things get slightly better when Pi not only gets his sight back, but also comes across a mysterious island with treas and algae floating on the bare sea with no land. What makes this island even more peculiar is that meerkats live on it. Pi decides to stay on the island as the algae is not only edible but tastes good. The meat of the meerkat is not bad too.
Then, Pi makes a stunning discovery.
The island is carnivorous. Pi discovers the teeth of some dead person in the leafs of a tree. Shocked, Pi quickly kills as many meerkats as possible for meat and escapes with Richard Parker on the lifeboat. After 227 days in sea, Pi arrives at the coast of Mexico and is helped by a group of locals. Richard Parker, as if not knowing Pi at all, escapes into the nearby jungle and is not heard of again...
3. Benito Juarez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico
By now, I was relieved that Pi made it out fine. But then, he is interviewed by two officials from the Japanese maritime department. He tells them the whole story but they refuse to believe him.............. maybe for the right reason.
So Pi proceeds to tell them another story. One that will shock you. One that will haunt you for days. One that will not allow you to sleep in peace. One that will not permit you the appetite to eat. One that I will not tell you because you need to read yourselves to find out what a genius the writer really is.
All I can say is that... this book is definitely worth the read. Also, I cannot wait for the movie adaptation to be released in 2012. It will be directed by Ang Lee and stars Irfan Khan as an adult Pi, Tabu as Pi's mother, Tobey Maguire as one of the interviewers and a newcomer as the teenage Pi.
Most of us grew up reading Robinson Crusoe, espicially those of us who attended school in the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia, where the novel was a compulsory component of English literature. If you found it boring, trust me; Life of Pi is nothing like that. It is a very fresh, beautiful and colourful book.