EPS Review #83 - Life of Pi

by Yann Martel; Canongate 2001

I grabbed this on my way out of the house when I was evicted by house-swappers a month or two ago. I had long thought that the story of a boy on a raft with a tiger would be a gimmicky novel of the type I would not like, but I was in a hurry. So I was delighted on reading the author's note, which says that this is basically a true story, and I felt a frisson when the Mr Patel from Pondicherry told the author that it would make one believe in God. I enjoyed the comment about the Indian fondness for words like "bamboozle" and settled in for a good tale. All the facts about zoos were fun but a little forced. The crazily-named Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) is a sympathetic character, though his extreme fondness for every religion raised my first shades of doubt. I see that I dog-eared his vision of the Virgin Mary in Canada, in a snowy wood, though at this late date I cannot remember why. Perhaps it was just a feeling it engendered. The other dog-ear is of the killing of the dorado in the raft:

The dorado did a most extraordinary thing as it died: it began to flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death. (I found out later that the dorado is famed for its death-knell iridescence).

I do like real survival literature, but here I think my favorite part was the plainly fantastical floating island of piscivorous plants, inhabited by meerkats. That reminded me of Poe. There is a surprise at the end. Or it is a surprise to me at least, that an author toying with truth and fantasy would then bother to invent the disappointing psychological explanation at the end.

I was going to refer to a previous review of an excellent non-fiction tale of survival, but I found that I never sent it. So here it as as a bonus:

In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, 2000

The true story behind Moby Dick. An obvious Perfect Storm wannabee, but very good all the same. You have your crazed sperm whale, your gory whaling details, your fingerbone-gnawing cannibalism. There is an appalling scene of Galapagos abuse. I was interested to learn that the SE Pacific is rather sterile because the south polar current flows unbroken beneath it -- no welling up of nutrients. So it was a big mistake on the survivors' part to fight the prevailing winds and head back east. They made Henderson Island, in the middle of nowhere, which had only one small spring below the tide line, and a few birds, and some skeletons in a cave. Would you have stayed? Three of the men did, because they thought that being the only non-Nantucketers would move them up the menu. Read it and find out what happened to them.

Patricia has been filing all week, and handed me an old letter from Nantucketer Albert J Pitkin, our old man of the sea, the children's great-grandfather. He tells how most of his phone calls then were from telemarketers, who hang up gently when he says he is 89. I do wish I had spent more time with him in his boats.

Some Life of Pi trivia

Susan wrote: My book club did Life of Pi. It had its moments but I certainly didn't become a believer. I forced myself to finish The DaVinci Code and thought it was limburger throughout. New favorite author - Richard Russo with Empire Falls being my fave. Loved the newest Hiaasen Skinny Dip. Try to find Little Children by Perotta and Present Value by Willett if you can.