Sunday, May 08, 2011

Book review: Life of Pi

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Warning: There be an English teacher's literary musings ahead.

As it was published in 2003, Life of Pi was hardly on anybody's radar this month. But it's been lurking around our house since about that time. We had a membership to Audible when E was working nights and we downloaded a series of audio books for him to listen to as he did data entry. I remember him telling me that I should read Life of Pi, but I hadn't had the occasion to listen to an audio book in a while. With Jane Eyre and my newfound affinity for running while reading, I decided to finally give Pi a try.

Life of Pi is about a young boy named Piscine (yes, "swimming pool" in French) whose father is a zookeeper in Pondicherry. When the zoo biz gets tough, the family decides to pack up animals and move to Canada by way of a cargo ship. The ship sinks and Pi finds himself alone on a lifeboat. With a tiger. Yes, I'm serious.

There are things I liked about this book and things I didn't like. It made me think. It's the kind of book I'd want to teach, which is (I suppose) a sign of it being a good book. My opinion of how certain things were done seems less relevant than the fact that they were done in the first place. It held my attention on long runs and made the hours pass so easily. The very idea of it being used to pass solitary time and simultaneously being about a boy on a lifeboat (trying to pass solitary time) is kind of meta, which is also fun.

Things I did not like (not that anyone was asking): a bit of animal-on-animal violence. Since it's about zoos and the (non-Disney) circle of life, this all fits. I'm just a wimp. Listening to how one animal ate another was sometimes a little hard to take. The other thing I did not like was the fact that there was a Harry-Potter-esque "room of requirement" element to it. It seemed like when Pi needed something--a conflict, a savior, a way to pass the time--something would randomly enter the story. I noticed that LOST relied heavily on the same thing and it makes sense. How else would you move a story along that's mostly about a boy and a tiger being trapped in a lifeboat? But sometimes it seemed too contrived, too easy. As hopeful storyteller myself this is interesting and I like even having the occasion to ponder it as a writing technique.

The other thing I didn't like was how the idea of allegory was handled at the end. I won't explain what happens exactly, except to say that I felt like the allegory of the story was obvious and didn't need to be explained. I felt like I understood it to be allegorical and I would have preferred that the author left it up to the reader to interpret rather than giving a step-by-step breakdown. The intent was clearly to raise questions about faith and belief but I think my personal preference (in literature and in religion, honestly) is to make up my own mind about what something means. Literary ambiguity: am a fan.

I didn't really like the island and the meerkats. But that is splitting hairs.

Things I did like (which are many): I liked that the author was able to make such a compelling story out of so little in the setting and character columns. It's hard enough for me to think about creating a story when I have the full variety of settings and characters available to me. I can't imagine limiting myself in such a way and still being able to hold a reader's attention for so long. I liked that it had elements of shipwreck and adventure story archetypes. There are so many good stories in that genre, that simply writing a story of that nature calls to mind so many others like it. There was a wealth of connotation that I brought to the story already and I feel like Martel handled it in a way that was refreshing but respectful of the genre.

I really liked Pi, the main character. He's so concerned with religion early in the story and I like looking at things through a child's unprejudiced eyes. Some of his philosophical musings reminded me of how innocently we all see things at first. I liked Richard Parker, the tiger. He was written so well that even though he was not a character who could traditionally interact through dialogue, he impacted Pi's actions and drove the story.

The section where Pi has gone blind and meets another blind castaway was my favorite part. I loved that he thought he was talking to Richard Parker. I loved that it read so much like Waiting for Godot, which is in so many ways a parallel to Pi's time on the boat. (My god, there was even a reference to a boot. It had to be an allusion to Godot. Eh, Didi?) The whole idea of the Absurd and existentialism taking the form of a conversation with a blind man/tiger was too delicious. I wish I had time to teach this novel simply so I could do some kind of side-by-side examination of the two stories.

I also enjoyed very much the allegorical nature of the animals in the story. Though (as I said) I didn't want it explained to me, I feel like the author managed to anthropomorphize each animal in a way that it represented the human trait he was trying to show. I don't know enough about animals to know how true to form these character traits were in real life, but from my pedestrian understanding it seemed to fit. The piecing together of reality and symbolism and allegorical roles was seamless and that made it enjoyable.

This was a good story. Even without all my book-club-of-one musings, I can say that it was interesting and that it kept me wondering what would happen next. I'm glad I read it and I am still thinking about it a few days later.

My recommendation: I can recommend reading it. I can also recommend running with it in your iPod. This is definitely something different.

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