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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book Review: The Life of Pi

"I wish I could convey the perfection of a seal slipping into water or a spider monkey swinging from point to point or a lion merely turning its head.  But language founders in such seas.  Better to picture it in your head if you want to feel it."

When Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel and his family emigrated from India to Canada, they didn't travel alone.  Pi's zoo director family packed the entire menagerie onto a cargo ship and the mixed family of people and animals set sail for America.  When the ship goes down in a storm, Pi finds himself alone on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific - alone, that is, except for a spotted hyena, a wounded zebra, a seasick orangutan, and a full grown Bengal tiger.

Yann Martel's most famous novel is a story of spirituality and survival, but it also manages to be a very good story about animals.  Before he sends his young protagonist off on his fateful adventure, Martel introduces us to the world that Pi grew up in - his father's zoo, where he spent his childhood playing among the grounds and watching the animals.  Aware that most of his readers have only a passing familiarity of what goes on in a zoo behind the scenes, Martel does an pretty decent introduction into the life of a zoo and zookeeper, offering all sorts of interesting tidbits and anecdotes from real history (my favorite is his recounting of the saga of black panther than escaped one Swiss winter, a true story I'd completely forgotten about until revisiting Life of Pi).

What makes Life of Pi so remarkable to me is how the author is able to tell such a charming, spiritual story featuring zoo animals without romanticizing or unduly humanizing the animals themselves.  Richard Parker is a tiger, and a tiger he remains throughout the book, and his relationship with Pi is that of a tiger with a caretaker... albeit in some pretty unusual circumstances.  In one of the most famous scenes in the book, Pi's worrywart father, concerned that his son's playful, imaginative nature will get him hurt one day, uses an unfortunate goat to teach Pi and his brother about the fierce power of their charges.  He then takes his boys for a tour-of-death around the zoo, describing how each and every animal they encounter is capable of killing them.

Martel doesn't humanize his animals as many authors do - instead he allows their animalism to make them the interesting characters that they are - different from us, yes, but still relatable.  The story of Pi's life, from childhood to fight for survival, is one that introduces readers into a unique world that very few could imagine... and that's before the adventure even really starts.

The 2012 movie based on the book and sharing the same title is also worth a peak, certainly.  It lacks most of the narration and backstory and animal insights of the novel, but makes up for it by being one of the most visually stunning movies I've ever seen.  Both are certainly worth your time.

Life of Pi at

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