Monday, 7 January 2013

Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi'

Life of Pi

      ‘After a thorough investigation I made a complete list:
·                                1 survival manual
·                                1 compass
·                                1 notebook
·                                1 boy with complete set of light clothing but for one lost shoe
·                                1 spotted hyena
·                                1 zebra (broken leg included)
·                                1 orang-utan
·                                1 450-pound Bengal tiger
·                               1 lifeboat
·                               1 ocean
·                               1 God’

This was not just the inventory of Piscine Molitor Patel’s prized possessions but it would seem also that of Booker prize winner Yann Martel’s creative writing arsenal when creating his worldwide best seller novel Life of Pi. In his novel, Martel tells us the valiant story of the brave Piscine’s struggle for survival after being shipwrecked with his family. Contrary to the expectations of a typical  shipwrecked castaway’s story, however, this is not merely the tale of a brave boy fighting hunger, loss and solitude. It is the story of an inquisitive soul who, on top of everything, both battles and nurtures his antagonising companion: an adult Royal Bengal tiger nicknamed Richard Parker.

Martel’s set up of the story is a framework with the aspirations of a writer who is desperate for a story to rekindle his career. When he hears of one that will allegedly ‘make you believe in God’ his curiosity is piqued and he enquires further. This framing of the story is an interesting technique Martel uses to avoid affronting atheists or agnostics with religion as a non-sequitur. By distancing us from this particular motif we are allowed to take it to heart or lay it down beside us. Simultaneously, the author flags that we are dealing with a meta-textual text where the process of storytelling itself is a major theme.
The structure of the novel is rather changeable which suggests that Martel was experimenting with different structures and could not decide on one to convey his story in a straightforward manner: shifts from one I to another telling their stories and then a sudden switch to a diary composition are somewhat disorienting for the reader though our author has made a poor attempt to cover up this fact by the use of clumsy punctuation rendering the layout of the book simply ridiculous.

Characterisation, both direct and indirect, are undoubtedly Martel’s forte. We connect to Pi through the establishing of a deeply rooted relationship with the reader. Pi seems to bare himself to us to a degree that is even less concealing than his lack of clothing. His thoughts and ideas, wishes and desires, grievances and suffering are cleverly portrayed through Pi’s use of a diary. Not only does this show a good insight into the character’s personality but it is worth mentioning that this is where Martel’s seemingly inept play with structures favours his work since it enhances the uneventful atmosphere and the everyday drag Pi experiences, enabling us as readers to float a mile on his raft. It is safe to say that Pi and Pi alone is characterised in this book leaving little opportunity for the reader to understand or experience the emotional gravity of Pi’s ordeal. A strong sense of identity is put forward but sadly not maintained on a consistent level.

Distinct motifs in this book are this aforementioned strong sense of identity along with strife, loss, courage, faith and one more pronounced is the juxtaposition of human conscience and animalistic behaviour. One patronising message to stand out is the descriptive lesson Pi’s wise atheistic father teaches his sons: animals have no soul and therefore no conscience. Not only is this a rather belittling and restrictive lesson to learn but Pi does not even succeed in disproving it since his tiger Richard Parker walks away without looking back even one last time. As a reader, this makes us doubt the truths that Martel puts forward to start with.

Overall, Life of Pi is a slow but very enjoyable read for those interested in internal dilemmas and dramatic monologue. The inner battle of our protagonist consists solely out of a balance shifting between fear and the will to survive, to live and even though the framed story ruins the surprise by letting on that Pi survives, the suspense remains because of the premise that is set up from the very beginning to titillate both our and the writer’s inquisitive minds. Emotional depth and the realistic descriptions ground this book on a firm, nigh unshakable base for those with a ready mind to be amazed. The unexpected plot twist in the end comes as a shock to the sensitive reader and I remain uncertain as to whether to approve or disapprove of it. To be sure, it adds a whole new layer onto the story and, moreover, the storyteller’s psyche but does it add value to our story or simply offer a nasty surprise?

Only Richard Parker can tell.

Review by Laura Robyn

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