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Friday, February 13, 2009

Life of Pi

I must be almost the last person in North America to read Yann Martel's unforgettable tale, "Life of Pi." Consider that there are now over 1900 reviews of the book on Amazon despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of a book's readers will ever take the time to do that, or that 16,095 members of Library Thing own it, making "Life of Pi" the 21st most popular book there. Well, I can finally tell everyone that it was worth the wait.

Yann Martel has written an inspiring story about the defining event in one man's life, an event that 16-year-old Pi Patel miraculously survives when so many others around him do not, something that shapes the rest of his life. It does not hurt, of course, that the story involves a shipwreck, a 450-pound Bengal tiger, one small lifeboat drifting the vast Pacific Ocean, cannibalism, and a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere.

Until his mid-teens, Pi Patel is raised in remote Pondicherry, India, where he and his brother are lucky enough to live on the grounds of the zoo managed by his father. Pi's father, though, becomes disillusioned with the Indian government of the mid-seventies and decides to move the family to Canada. The Patel family leaves India on the same freighter carrying a large number of zoo animals destined for new homes of their own in North American zoos. Plans for man and animal alike, however, change one day just before dawn when Pi realizes that the ship is rapidly sinking.

Suddenly the ship is gone and Pi finds himself sharing a 26-foot lifeboat with a severely injured zebra, a female orangutan elder, a manic hyena and, most importantly, a tiger so large that he alone fills half the boat's limited space. Animals do what animals do, especially when faced with starvation, and only Pi and the tiger he calls Richard Parker are still around when the boat reaches land 227 days later.

Yann Martel mixes realism and magic to just the right degree, allowing his readers to suspend their disbelief to the degree that everything that happens seems possible - and then he throws readers the kind of curve ball that will leave them standing at the plate with bats on shoulders, an alternate version of his entire story. Each reader will have to choose for himself the version he believes to have happened, a choice that will tell much about the reader himself. I cannot imagine a more perfect choice for book club discussion than "Life of Pi."

If you are one of the few yet to read "Life of Pi," you have quite an experience ahead of you.

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