Life of Pi
Yann Martel
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Buy *Life of Pi: A Novel* online

Life of Pi
Yann Martel
Harvest Books
336 pages
May 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here for Amanda Cuda's review of Life of Pi

I'm not much of a fiction reader. Art, culture, religion: yes. Society, business, economics: yes. Cosmology, the miracle of the cell, the search for meaning: yes. Art: yes. History: yes. Biography: yes. Fiction: When you live in an ice-cream shop, why stick to vanilla?

Somehow comparing the real world with what the mind can invent is a little like visiting a famed art museum only to find the latest exhibit consists of cast paper. So when I hear about a novel that has everyone a-dither, my usual habit is to open it to anywhere in the middle and read a paragraph. Figuring that the middle of a novel is like the top of the fifth in a baseball game, if there's a homer there, I go back and read the bookıs opening paragraph. Then the last paragraph. If those pass muster I start in on Chapter One and continue till either boredom or completion, whichever arrives first.

Let he or she who doth jape be not guilty of fast-forwarding.

Life of Pi broke every rule. The paragraph at random could have been anywhere in the story. It got me so mesmerized from word #3 on that I was a full three pages into things before I realized I'd broken some kind of boredom barrier. So back to the beginning, only to find two beginnings. The first, an Author's Note in italics, starts off, "This book was born when I was hungry." If ever a notion strikes to the heart of the writer's plight, that one is it. Writers lead a such clearly defined life: no words, no eat.

The second was a little less promising: "My suffering left me sad and gloomy." Aside from the fact that "sad" and "gloomy" are neighbors without a fence (go look them up) and a lousy way to start a novel billed on the jacket with paeans like ³"the greatest living writer of the generation born in the sixties," "astonishment, delight, and gratitude," and "rare and wondrous storytelling." But then, book jacket copy is like baconburger ads on TV: they look great steaming away during a three-second photo shoot under the hot lights, but nobody in their right mind would eat such a thing, especially where they tend to get served.

"My suffering left me sad and gloomy." Hoo-boy, another mirror-gazing biography of the creative-writing-school type that lecturers adore and publishers transport instantly from slush pile to the "Thank you for your interest" pile.

So, then, to the other end of the book, where the last sentence was more promising: "Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger."

In the event of mixed feelings, press on. Back to the beginning. Paragraph two, sentence two read, "I have kept up with what some people would consider my strange religious practices." An eyebrow-raiser, for if there is anything that sets a person apart from the institutionalized commonlot smothering slowly away in the incense of devotion, it is admitting to a strange religious practice.

"Get back to work you fool," my left brain said. "Press on, you fool," my right brain retorted. The part in the middle said, "There's nothing left in your right brain and nothing left in your right brain. Go with your soul."

That was at 10:00 a.m. By 1:00 a.m. and two (non-bacon) burgers later I had reached the last sentence via the approved route and had transformed into a fiction enthusiast, at least of the fiction of Yann Martel.

By now everything that can be said about the literary merits of this book have been said (during one 70-minute shoe-throwing session at the Booker Prize selections meeting). So let's dwell on some things that haven't.

Technique, for one. For writers who want to learn how to move from riveting phrase to riveting paragraph, or move along an inherently tedious story (277 days of survival at sea) without resorting to that ultimate cop-out of a word "suddenly," this is a book to study as much as read. As long expanses of nonevents inchworm their way across the chapters, seldom do two paragraphs go by without a complete change of topic. It is as if Mr. Martel threw years of diary notes snipped into one-paragraph segments into a hat and started pulling them out. Pastiche perhaps, but boy is he good at the connection phrases.

On the other hand, when he does get expansive, the detail can be amazing. Chapter 71 (on page 202! complete instructions for taming a tiger on a 26-foot lifeboat at sea, and more, how to do so with less seeming fear for the task than demanded by bringing to heel a Yorkshire terrier. Metatag the literature as you may, you wonıt find this anywhere else.

It is tempting to play the self-inflated book reviewer with books like this. For that you can consult one of the packaged cake mixes that weigh the shelves of the literary supermarket. For me, Life of Pi was a meander through the Asian street stalls of language, a tasty sentence here, tart and toothy paragraph there, chapters like the dozens of rice sacks each similar and yet different from the next, obtaining from each stall the spices of word and condiments of concept that leap from puff of flame to bubbling pot to repast of wonder enough to commence a lifetime.

Or as Mr. Martel better puts it on page five: "...reason, that fool's gold of the mind."

© 2002 by Dana De Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

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