Yann Martel’s award-winning novel, metafictional and metaphysical, does not fit the conventional definition of fantasy. Its protagonist survives a shipwreck and finds himself adrift on the ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. As a sea yarn, however, it shares company with the traveler’s tales of yore and includes at least one encounter with the literal fantastic.
Title: The Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
First Published: 2001
I put a message in the bottle: “Japanese-owned cargo ship Tsimtsum, flying Panamanian flag, sank July 2nd, 1977, in Pacific, four days out of Manila. Am in lifeboat. Pi Patel my name. Have some food, some water, but Bengal tiger a serious problem. Please advise family in Winnipeg, Canada. Any help much appreciated. Thank you.”
Everything that precedes and gives significance to the following statement:
“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story…?”
Life of Pi makes the case for imaginative fiction.
The encounter that occurs while Pi has temporarily lost his sight serves a purpose, but it drags.
Originality: 5/6. We have Pi’s life as a zookeeper’s son, his desire to practice multiple religious faiths, and a very strange ocean voyage which includes a mysterious “island” of sorts, an item equal to anything in the best SF. The book has antecedents, but I have encountered nothing quite like it. However, some controversy has arisen over the similarities between Martel’s book and Moacyr Scliar’s Max e os Felinos (Max and the Cats), in which a German refugee crosses the Atlantic with a jaguar. Martel thanked Scliar for an inspirational “spark,” but also claims to have not read the novel prior to writing Life of Pi. Rather, he says he read a review. While this similarity is significant, the books themselves are otherwise dramatically different.
Imagery: 6/6. Some readers will find the detail excessive; others will revel in the vivid imagery.
Story: 5/6. Martel tells an excellent, original story. The pacing suffers in places.
Characterization: 6/6 We know Pi by the end of the novel. We understand his curious doppelganger relationship with Richard Parker, and yet Parker himself proves a stunning creation, a memorable animal character who has not been anthropomorphized. Martel gives us a realistic tiger, such as a zookeeper’s son might know him.
Emotional Response: 6/6. The Life of Pi will give a reader much to think and feel about. I’d originally given a score of 5/6, reflecting my reaction to some sections which seemed protracted for no really good reason. I raised it when I realized how much this novel has statyed with me.
Overall score: 6/6. I really enjoyed this novel, though I caution that those who read plot-oriented fiction and genre exclusively may not share my experience.
In total, Life of Pi receives 40/42.
Notoriously, Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket makes a Richard Parker the short straw, consumed by his fellow survivors after a shipwreck. Forty-six years later, the basic events of the story occurred in reality, with a Richard Parker also drawing the short straw.
A film of Life of Pi is currently in pre-production limbo.