Martel’s tale of Piscine Molitor Patel is like no other I have ever read. Born and raised in colourful and bright Pondicherry, it follows him through his fateful voyage to Canada with his family, where the ship descends to the sea bed and the only company remaining in the small life boat is a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan comically named Orange Juice, a half deranged hyena, and most importantly, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who suffers from extreme sea sickness. These comical names alone are explained in the most bizarre of circumstances, yet they provide light distraction from the dense knowledge of Part One. I’m sure at this point you’re questioning as to how a book such as this strange one mentioned could win a Man Booker Prize, yet to me the biggest prize was finally reading it after having heard so much furor around it. For sheer novel brilliance, literary excellence, and zoological verisimilitude Martel deserves the Booker, yet this book offers the reader so much more than one initially expects. Upon reading more into Martel and his works, I discovered that the novel had been rejected by five major publishing houses before being accepted by Knopf Canada. All I can say is, were the other five completely mad?
Perhaps I should start by saying that this novel is not for the faint hearted (or for the seasick for that matter!). Part One is densely packed with zoology knowledge and religious revelations, making a somewhat heavy start to what is arguably the best novel I have read in a long time. I implore you to not give up though. Yes, its heavy but is relevant, and I guarantee it will change the way you view an animal next time you visit a zoo. You’ll realise why the leopard enclosures have such high fences, how animal is a sheer survival machine, and most fascinatingly, the world of the animal’s inner mind. The utter depth of knowledge Martel provides is truly incredible, enough for me to even look up as to whether he has a degree in zoology or the like. Martel’s blending of religion with morality is something I personally found utterly enthralling, to the point where I read the novel in one sitting on a long-haul flight. Perhaps it is the way in which he speaks directly to the reader that allows a densely packed Part One to slip by with relative ease (for those who are accustomed to reading a dense novel, may I add) Once the reader passes Part One and all its factuality, we see Martel’s talent come to life. Having said this, the beginning has an important role in letting us see Pi’s family, thus making his later anguish all the more upsetting and emotional. Martel presents the reader with an ingenious method of keeping ones mind active, mirroring that of Pi’s struggle in the Pacific Ocean. Most predominantly, Martel’s use of listing various things, such as equipment, his daily routine etc. keeps the reader sane through what is undoubtedly a very insane journey within Pi’s mind. Yes, there are times at which you wonder whether Martel loses his way or timeline of events, yet the book captivates something that I never knew even existed within me. I don’t think I have ever really felt pity like I did when reading the tale of Pi and his Bengal tiger. There are moments of humour and parts where I genuinely laughed out loud at Pi’s sudden realisation that his final co-pilot for their mission home is a tiger. What I was so very amazed about when reading the novel was how many emotions one book could evoke within me.
The events upon the boat with the other inhabitants make for an engrossing read upon which the reader is unable to put the book down, and Pi’s triple conversion to Hinduism, Muslim and Christianity adds a sense of morality to the voyage every time Pi weeps over a life-saving meal that he has had to kill. This alone remains poignant in the book. Pi’s weeping over the death of a Mako sounds comical, yet there is something truly distressing about the scene that unfolds, and the way in which the Mako shines all number of colours before death takes it, perhaps hinting again towards a inexplicable sense of altered realism within the novel. That is another element one must consider. Realism remains as much as possible within the first three quarters of the novel, it is only when the two begin to waste away and die that we really enter a sense of the strange, with Martel almost wanting to obliterate any previous sense of calmness and survival assumptions the reader may have. Most predominantly, the Meerkat Island and its carnivorous tendencies. Martel’s use of the island toys with the reader. We are almost elated with joy when Pi sinks his teeth into the algae and finds that he loves it, yet the discovery of teeth promptly sets the two into the ocean again.
Yet I must say, what I found so absolutely amazing within the book is that of the relationship between man and beast, and their coexistence on such a small ray of hope in the middle of a vast expanse. We are carried through this journey in Pi where he battles sanity and his own conscience, first deciding to kill Richard parker, but never actually bringing himself to do it. The two become unlikely companions, and what I as the reader found most enthralling was the battle of hierarchy Martel so effortlessly describes, harking back to the informative Part One, and thus tying the confusing, somewhat bizarre elements of the novel together. From what is quite a heavy novel, Martel makes it seem like an effortless read through his different uses of breaking the written word into manageable pieces. Perhaps the most graphic example of this is the very end, when the question of morality truly arises, and the reader, as Man, is truly questioned as to which they prefer (I wont explain the end as I don’t want to ruin a spectacular plot twist). The interview style element makes a challenging subject of survival and loss for Pi into an easy flowing narrative for the reader, with a jaw dropping ideology revealed at the end.
As previously mentioned, Martel has an intriguing way of handing the reader a sense of hope, and then dashing it way before the reader truly has a clutch on it. This is again done when the two finally land on the Mexican shores after 227 days at sea with one another. Through anguish, pain, blindness and sheer survival they have triumph, yet Martel halts the reader’s want of a lifetime friendship between the two by simply stating ‘Then Richard Parker, companion of my torment, awful, fierce thing that kept me alive, moved forward and disappeared forever in my life’. Such a poignant and well-written sentence to end a tumultuous relationship aboard a small boat. I, personally, was in utter shock. I was expecting him to jump into Pi’s arms, or to at least attempt to attack the officials who rescue him, but to no avail. But of course, how naïve of me. Martel has presented us with the battle between Man and Beast and their struggle for co-habituating harmony, why should the tiger suddenly turn into a common house cat? And there is the moment in which you truly see Martel’s previously unrecognised talent. One can almost hear Martel asking if the reader has learnt nothing in part one of the beast’s need for survival. It is then that we realise, the reader has been duped, stripped of what they thought they knew, and left, much like the lonesome boy at sea.
If I could recommend one thing, it would be to read the non-illustrated version. I have read both now, and strongly believe that Martel’s descriptive powers work so much more efficiently and vividly if left to the reader’s imagination alone. I shall say one final word on the ending. It is not what you expect. That may be cliché, however I do not know how else to say it without giving it away. Pi’s providing of a second, far more harrowing version of events directly pinpoints the reader with Man’s morality, or lack thereof, with Pi outright asking which the officials prefer. It forces the reader to answer the question unwittingly, now that all evidence is laid in front of us. I can tell you my answer, and that is that I wholeheartedly prefer the story with Richard Parker.
by Hannah Thomson