Forging an individual writing style entails risks for all authors, especially sensitive writers whose second book does not fare well: too over the top with magic realism and you are trespassing on South American territory; too contemporary and you are not inventive enough; too mysterious and you risk being compared to P.D. James; too many religious references and you are a fanatic. Perhaps would-be writers embarking on voyages to where no one has gone before, should take notes from Montreal's Yann Martel, whose recent book Life of Pi, could easily have a disclaimer on the book jacket proclaiming it "defies classification," but can be shelved under witty, airily entertaining, harrowing and remarkable, beguiling and a triumphant tour de force.
This novel begins with a confession from the author, whose strategy for coping with writer's block is detailed. Simultaneously strange and believable, and foreshadowing the various literary alchemies throughout the book, it is a great opening and allows me to digress for a moment. Although I would never presume to advise readers on how to read a book, I suggest creating the right ambience first: where language is concerned, find ways to use the word Šbamboozle'. Since our hero, Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel, is from Pondicherry India, a burri gin and nimbu, should always be on hand. Swaying in a hammock would definitely add to the experience, and yes I know, Pondicherry was more Gallic than Britannic. Therefore, may I suggest une tasse de cognac to savour the musings of this spicy storyteller.
Martel uncoils the plot with great agility, neatly manipulating plausible premises into more and more realistic outcomes. The cross between zoology and religion is soon established. With great zeal and an incandescent sense of humour, Pi tells of growing up in the Pondicherry Zoo, spread over numberless acres where his father was director. Sixteen-year-old Pi's secular parents are mystified when they discover three wise men¨an imam, a pandit and a priest¨all fighting for their son's soul and eventual salvation. Pi defies religious conventions and is as comfortable on a prayer rug as he is receiving communion or performing pujas at a Hindu temple. That an author should choose three religions for his protagonist is a conceit so ripe for imaginative delectation that you almost want Martel to make more of it. But the book is soon confined to the claustrophobic and solitary world of a lifeboat. Pi, the sole human survivor of a catastrophic sea accident has to share his craft and contend with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker as they struggle to survive the endless voyage on the Pacific. (If you are thinking a cross between Findley's Not wanted on the voyage and Melville's Moby Dick, just remember that Martel defies comparison!).
Pi is good company as a narrator. Bright and charmingly straightforward, he recounts his ordeal with precision and poignancy. He is the captain of his fate and the struggle to survive and maintain his sanity is neatly juxtaposed with the sights, odours, food and weather on the ocean. You never feel cut off from Pi's plight, and the fine line between madness and the state of enduring grace is finely balanced. It would be wrong to disclose how Martel concludes his book. Let it suffice to say this reader was fascinated to the end. Martel's ringmaster precision, his control is consistent throughout the book. His story is a wonderful reminder that loving life despite the horrors and suffering it inflicts is fundamental to all of humanity.
There is only one thing that still bothers me, and I have written it on my to do list¨to phone Pi who is apparently listed in the Toronto directory. I just want to tell him not to pine too much for Richard Parker... "I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of good-bye, without looking back even once. This pain is like an axe that chops at my heart." I have rehearsed my speech" ŠPi,' I will say, Šlet me introduce you to my friends Calvin and Hobbes, they always make me smile, assuage the ache borne of the world's malice and they understand tigers!' ˛