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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Infinite Awesomeness

Yann Martel's 'Life Of Pi' is an amazing novel I picked up at the school library. Much heard of, finally read. The detailed story deserves to be found out on its own, but I can tell you that it begins with the writer writing in first person, mixing fact with fiction to talk about an encounter with a man who directs him to the protagonist Pi, saying that his story would make the author believe in God. The writer follows the lead though with little conviction as to the story's quality: his compulsion being only his writer's block. Pi tells the author his story, and the extraordinary narrative that follows is mostly in the form of Pi's delightfully vivid reminiscence, again in first person, interrupted at times by the author's commentary on Pi, his home and his family that he sees before him in the relative present. Pi is 'now', an Indian-born Canadian citizen, married to a woman of Indian descent, and with two children. The symbols of faith in his home reflect no particular religion or belief system, but that of multiple religions: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. This peculiarity of faith, as we come to know later, happened to him early in life, in the happy young phase, before his life-changing adventure crept in.
The cover in which I
read the book
In the first part, Pi talks of his life in Pondicherry in South India as son to a zookeeper and his wife, little brother to Ravi the cricketing hero, nephew and disciple of an ace swimmer; an ace swimmer himself, Piscine Molitor Patel is named after the Piscine Molitor swimming complex in Paris that his uncle was extremely fond of. Tired of being called 'Pissing' in secondary school, both mistakenly and intentionally, he enforces the nickname Pi for himself in high school right from the beginning. It did lead to 'Lemon Pie', but he even prefers the impersonal and shadowing 'Ravi's brother' to 'Pissing'. Also, he begins a trend of Greek letter nicknames. These and many more are the enjoyable stories he tells of his childhood, some of which are rather ordinary ones, like those about teachers and relatives. He also dispels some myths about animals, and voices his opinions about animals and religion, the two big things in his life. Then he talks of the bombshell that fell on Ravi and him, when in the 1970s tumult in India his father gives in to the alluring prospects of greener pastures abroad. He sells the zoo's animals, which combined with other preparations like paperwork takes well over a year, and then they get on a cargo ship to Canada with a few more of the animals that were to be sold there. And there ends the first part of the novel.
The second part is a shock, with the fifteen-year-old Pi on a lifeboat, trying to rescue Richard Parker, until he realizes they'd be together on that boat, and tries unsuccessfully to prevent him from boarding it. He really can't afford to be together with Richard Parker. Because Richard Parker is a young adult. A young adult weighing 450 pounds. A 450-pound young adult Royal Bengal Tiger. And this tiger is not Pi's only companion. There's a zebra with a broken leg, that the hyena eats, an orangutan named Orange Juice that also the hyena eats, and this hyena is eaten by Richard Parker. Pi spends the rest of his lifeboat days (227 days, a record time) in alternating phases of desperation and resolve. He uses his experiences from the zoo to try taming Richard Parker. He builds contraptions of survival and tries to overcome his navigational ignorance to understand the survival manual completely. He learns to overcome his inhibitions as a lifelong vegetarian to kill and eat marine animals, and makes use of the different devices among the rations that he had never seen before. He even has an extremely surreal adventure on an island of algae (spoilercarnivorousalgaespoiler) with an equally surreal ecosystem. He occasionally writes undated accounts in the notebook he finds among the rations, as he copes with the innumerable travails of being a castaway. His hope of reunion with his family dwindles but never disappears, as on the day he estimates to be his mother's birthday, he sings 'Happy Birthday' to her loudly.
In the third part he finds land, loses Richard Parker and after a harrowing and rather comical interview with the Japanese authority of the cargo ship he was on, he makes a choice to take his insurance money and go on to Canada instead of back to India : he says India has only sad memories for him. Pi since then has grown in foster care, studied at Toronto University with a double majors, and has become a family man.
Some other covers
Life Of Pi is a gripping adventure, that, as one of the reviews says, is 'deceptively simple'. Martel spins a web of fact and fiction, of everyday life and adventure that truly cannot be described as anything other than 'life', however extraordinary it is. It, however, is more than just and adventure. More than a third of the book consists of the first part, which has nothing to do with the adventure at sea. It is a simple account of Pi as he was in India, but it does not feel boring or unnecessary to the book in any way. Somehow, it gels perfectly with the rest of Pi's story, at times with veiled allusions to the adventure, and at other times referring to life in the future in Canada without speaking of the saga in between. It explains a lot about Pi's character, gives a firm base to the adventure and thus does away with plot detours of explanation when the adventure sets in. It shows the sharp contrast between the two, or rather three lives, all the time being enjoyable even as a standalone account of a grown man's boyhood days. It also shows another significance as the story unravels: the very reason Pi stresses on his early life so much is that he doesn't have much to show for it; all memorabilia they carried are at the bottom of the Pacific. He, at one point, says that he cannot remember clearly how his mother looked like. The first part is also the part that has more of the author's commentary on the present Pi, which lessens in the second part to keep the adventure brewing.
In the second part, the dangerous situation sets in with suddenness that one can almost feel mortally. It just drops from nowhere, instead of picking up where part one left off, that is, at the journey's advent. It starts with a time after the sinking and retraces only to give an account of the sinking and some very essential details: Martel wastes no time in giving any details that have no place in the twists and turns of Pi's life; there aren't many necessary details left out in the first part. Then Martel takes to the adventure with gusto, in his extremely realistic style. Pi's plans of survival are often written in the form of lists, even when no list is actually made by Pi in the story. This is a risky device that could very well take away the flow of the story and give a poor impression of the author's literary flair. But Martel tames them and deftly integrates the lists into his narrative, squeezing every possible benefit from them. When there are no written lists, they serve to show that Pi has put his broader thoughts on hold to focus on a very immediate problem. Where there are, they reflect Pi's mental state, like when he takes inventory of everything he has, and in the end includes the animals, himself (one boy...), the boat and the ocean as items in it. He ends this list with the item 'one God', two simple words that show the source of his will to live.
Yann Martel: the novel novelist
Martel takes many more risks: he uses extremely simple language and contradicting emotions, that serve but to make his story more realistic. He weaves extreme surrealism, bordering on science fiction, into a story of realistic adventure. He ventures into statistical improbabilities, like Pi meeting another survivor, temporarily blinded by prolonged sea living just like him, but they only elevate the gripping headiness of the narrative. He jumps genres shamelessly, from happy anecdotes to adventure, to unreal themes, to comedy and all the way back. But never, ever, does the narrative come loose; it only draws the reader more deeply into it, until one is made to laugh or cry, feel despair or exaltation, hope or anguish, as and when the author pleases.
The novel differs from other adventures in being not comprising solely the adventure. It differs in the hero being not at all heroic, lacking much of anything, be it experience, strength, knowledge, or even constant hope and courage. He has the last two in abundance, but they come and go like the storms on the sea. Pi is not hardy enough to be able to make moral exceptions right away: he has to struggle with his conscience to give up his vegetarian ways, to kill another being for his own survival. To boot, he is only fifteen. His only strength is in the simple, unconditional will to live, in prayer and in the hope of reunion with his family that eventually gives way to fond memory of them. Unlike other adventures, Pi hadn't taken even a small risk intentionally, other than the inherent risk of overseas travel. Differently from other adventures but very realistically, the exaltation of deliverance is not very great in Pi's mind. He does not react to finding land except for the disappointment at the inconclusive way in which his relationship with Richard Parker ends, with the beast disappearing into the jungle.
SPOILER In the third part, the shipping authorities interview him in the hospital as the sole survivor. Upon their disbelief of his story, Pi cooks up a more believable version of it and then gives them a choice between the two. He responds wryly to their doubts and their routine questions, and evidently doesn't care much about all of it. Martel's narrative changes tones drastically in this last part. The whole interview is in the form of an audiotape that the author obtained from one of the interviewers. It doesn't have any more of Pi's own words, and ends with the report that this interviewer had handed in: it diplomatically sidesteps details about Pi's lifeboat days, only mentioning in the end the record-breaking 227 days of survival, made more unique by the presence of a Royal Bengal Tiger. /SPOILER

That number pi just goes on and on. So does the awesomeness of this book. A must-read for anyone and everyone. Read it, and see how beautifully fresh and unique the novel is: not one bit of cliche in it. See how wonderfully the novelist has woven together completely diverse ideas into one tight package of excitement and food-for-thought. Truly novel, I must say.


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