Yann Martel’s breakthrough novel from 2001 received much praise in its day, and it is not hard to see why. While first and foremost appealing to the average reader, the book has the power to woo critics with its trendy magical realism and heavy reliance on allegories. However, I beg to differ, my main complaint (other than that the allegories are actually pretty bland) being that I didn’t really feel anything as I closed the book. There was nothing, and the single powerful snap the novel had (I’ll get to it later) only confirmed my conviction that Life Of Pi is like a mediocre song by a very strong, very capable songwriter: somewhat exciting while it’s on, somewhat middling when it’s over.
Life Of Pi is, in a nutshell, a fairy-tale dressed in a real story (or vice versa). A young man named Piscine Molitar Patel (constantly under the gunpoint of embarrassment and humiliation, he is soon forced to change it into just Pi Patel) living in Canada recounts his childhood years in India and his two objects of fascination: animals and religion. His father owns a zoo in Pondicherry, so Pi gets to see it all from the inside: brutal tigers; sheepish guinea pigs; sly, disgusting hyenas. Also (and these are by far the worst, most painful pages in the book), at some stage Pi gets acquainted with three religions: Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. A small boy wishing to love God, Pi is of course welcomed by every church, and the scenes are so saccharine and cheaply pious you wince and cringe in inevitable sacrilegious agony.
The novel really picks up around the time Pi’s family decides to emigrate to Canada and suffers a terrible shipwreck in The Pacific Ocean that kills everyone except Pi and and several zoo animals. In the end, the boy is left alone in the middle of the ocean – together with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker occupying the lifeboat. The boy builds himself a raft, finds food supplies, and from now on we embark on a survival story as engaging as it is obvious and predictable. (As it happens, Martel was later accused of plagiarizing a little known book of Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar; the 1981 novella tells a story of a man stuck in The Atlantic Ocean with a jaguar.)
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the book comes at the very end – when the lifeboat reaches Mexico, Richard Parker runs into the jungle, and Pi is interrogated by two Japanese officials. Pi tells them the whole story as it happened: a zebra and an orangutan got eaten by a hyena; the hyena got eaten by a tiger; he and the tiger survived all this time (227 days) together. The officials don’t believe him, so Pi tells them a different story. This time it comes off even more brutal, since Pi turns all the animals into real human beings. Then Pi asks the two officials which story they were more likely to believe, and after a pause they choose… Well, what do you think? Yann Martel makes a good point there, but it doesn’t quite justify the shallow pleasures that came before.
Yann Martel’s prose is good: it’s simple, but muscular and effective. Still, enjoyable though the actual plot may be, in the end Life Of Pi reads like a compromised and (I really have to say this) slightly dumbed down version of Salman Rushdie. And not merely for geographical reasons. It has that scope, that slightly quizzical, fairy-tale like feel to it. But, fatally, Rushdie’s wit is countered by dull religiosity, and edge is replaced by sappiness and lack of charisma. Magical realism? Well, Life Of Pi doesn’t feel like a very realistic story. Interestingly, though, for all its whim and delusion, the book badly lacks magic.