Life of Pi

by Yann Martel
ISBN: 0676973779

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A Review of: Life of Pi
by Peter Yan

Is the 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel inspired by the 20-year-old novella Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar? Or is Martel himself a copycat, plagiarizing the story's premise of a shipwrecked youth stranded in a lifeboat with a ferocious feline?
Martel claims he never read Scliar's novella firsthand, reading the story's premise in a book review of Max and the Cats. Martel, according to his author's note in Life of Pi, based the character Piscine Molitor Patel on the real life events of a real Pi Patel living in Scarborough, and on the historical records of Patel's shipwreck aboard a Japanese freighter.
Still, the reported similarities between Life of Pi and Max and the Cats fuel the literary debate, a debate likely to become more heated now that Hollywood plans a film version of Life of Pi. Reading the two books side-by-side, one realizes how inadequate bald plot summaries are in conveying the unique imaginative impact of each book.
Both books, like Hollywood films, divide their story into three acts with the middle act featuring the controversial man vs. cat scenes. In this act, the resemblances between the two books result more from the narrative demands for realism, the suspension of disbelief, than plagiarism. Any modern re-telling of a sinking Noah's ark would follow the same narrative pattern in order to identify the reader with the main character in the fight against nature. Consequently, it is no surprise that both protagonists search for emergency equipment and rations on their lifeboats, fish daily to feed the cat and themself, catch seagulls, battle sharks, attempt to tame the cat, make supplications to God, and suffer from seasickness, sun exposure, and hallucinations.
Despite some interesting resemblances (both protagonists have hallucinations of someone who is psychologically close to being their brother), generic similarities (both stories adopt the bildungsroman genre) and minor variations (Pi uses a whistle to tame the cat while Max uses a belt), a close reading supports Martel's claim he did not read Max and the Cats.
Martel is most susceptible to the charge of plagiarism in his allegorical use of the cat. Just like Scliar's cat, Martel's is loaded with symbolic meaning and before the final act vanishes without a trace: Upon hitting the Mexican coast, Pi's tiger runs into the jungle; Max, after blacking out, is found catless by another ship's crew. In a story where a cat is clearly more than just a cat, Martel's choice, just like Scliar's, seems obvious in hindsight: in order to preserve the cat's various levels of meanings-psychological, political, sexual or metaphysical-the cat must run free.
Life of Pi is 250 pages longer than Max and the Cats, giving Martel much more room than Scliar to explore not only cats, but also zoology, anthropomorphism, God, as well as the meta-literary. Life of Pi is told from two alternating points of view, the main character Pi in a flashback and Yann Martel himself, who is the "visiting writer" (Martel 101) interviewing Pi many years after the cat in the boat story. This technique of the intrusive narrator adds the documentary realism to the book, setting up, like a musical counter-point, the myth-making, unreliable narrator, Pi. The reader is left to ponder at the end whether Pi's story is an allegory of another set of parallel events or vice versa. No such storytelling sophistication resides in Max and the Cats. Scliar's most innovative twist is to fashion a story of revenge, more commonly seen in tragedy, into a revenge comedy. Scliar, also, manages to show us the entire life of the narrator Max in his scant 99-page novella. Martel largely follows Pi up to his university days, with a brief mention of his family life later
Martel also marries effortlessly the human and natural worlds in one stunning extended metaphor: "With just one glance I discovered that the sea is a city. Just below me, all around, unsuspected by me, were highways, boulevards, streets and roundabouts bustling with submarine trafficfish like trucks and buses and cars and bicycles and pedestrians were madly racing about no doubt honking and hollering at each otherBut whatever the size or colour of a vehicle, one thing was constant: the furious driving."
No such verbal pyrotechnics exist in Max and the Cats, largely because Max and the Cats comes to us from Portuguese.
The world of Max and the Cats is more concerned with psychology, both Oedipal and Jungian, than in Life of Pi. Scliar depicts the boy Max making a weak attempt to kill his father. We also get a full sexual biography of Max, as he confronts his id and shadow on his path towards individuation.Pi does suffer from the same mental battles as Max, as he tries to suppress the forceful images in his subconscious, real and surreal, which threaten to drown his conscious memory. . .
What clearly separates the two books is Martel's allusive writing, full of religious echoes-Hindu, Islamic but mostly Christian. Martel makes many overt and subtle, ironic Biblical references but his most extended allusion is to the Book of Genesis. Life of Pi's overall design reads like the Genesis creation myth in reverse, a de-creation myth, moving from a dissolving Indian civilization into a watery chaos-world, where the hierarchy of man over nature is overturned and beasts are king, where Pi, the modern Noah, after months being lost at sea, lands his lifeboat on a small island, only to discover it is a parody of Eden, complete with a tree of death that devours flesh like a carnivore, leaving nothing behind except the molars.
The Booker Prize controversy is a lesson in reading.Thankfully, Martel followed his inspiration, however indirect, from Scliar's book, and fought off the anxiety of Scliar's influence to write a great novel, no mean feat in this age of litigation fixated on the control of intellectual property.

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