October 2002

Mike Atherton

fiction

'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel

I first came across Yann Martel a couple of years ago when I found a battered copy of The Facts Behind The Helsinki Roccamatios in a remainder bookshop. I was intrigued by the title and by the brief biography at the front of the book:

"(Martel) has a BA in Philosophy from Trent University and has worked as a parking-lot attendant, tree planter, dish washer and security guard."

Canongate (his new UK publisher, he was formally with Faber) have sadly decided to omit any reference to Mr Martel's time as a tree planter and would now rather the public know that he has been shortlisted for a couple of literary prizes. Personally I'd rather read the book of an ex-carpark attendant than the, more often than not, dry and dull as dishwater 'worthy' authors.

The quotes from reviewers on the back of my new battered paperback spoke of a 'rare debut' and a 'principled talent' - in short a writer to be watched. Yet here I was holding a remaindered copy, which left me wondering whether the reviewers were off the mark or simply that Faber had screwed up and let a good book fall through the net. I read it in a single evening and immediately agreed with The Guardian - it was indeed a 'small masterpiece'. the book is made up of the long titular story and three shorter ones, all of them immediately re-readable. The final one, 'The Mirror Machine', is now one of my favourite short stories and I often rave on about it to complete strangers. So here I was, hooked on Yann Martel just at the point that he seemed to fall off the literary radar. Damn.

Almost ten years since the publication of The Facts Behind The Helsinki Roccamatios Yann Martel is very much back. His new novel The Life of Pi has just been short-listed for the Booker Prize and there has to be someone at Faber banging their head against a wall at letting this astounding novel be bagged by Canongate.

The first thing you notice about the novel is the cover. It's stunning: A small brown figure lays huddled at the rear of a tiny boat. Underneath and around the boat the sea is streaming with marine life while at the front of the ship lays a fully grown tiger, head resting, one paw dangling over the water.

The awesome cover then is the book in a nutshell. A young Indian boy is stranded in a life raft after the ship carrying himself and some of the contents of his father's zoo is sunk. He shares the lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal Tiger. And a zebra with a broken leg. And a hyena. And an orangutan. Intrigued yet?

My first reaction was that Martel wouldn't be able to sustain such an outrageous premise for over 300 pages but given that the first third of the novel is given over to allowing the reader time to meet and become involved with the wonderful character of Piscine Molitor Patel, his family, how he came by the name of Pi and subsequently became a practising Hindu, Christian and Muslim all at the same time is both charming and funny. Martel occasionally uses the literary equivalent of a slight of hand to fool the reader into 'seeing' something that isn't there, but despite this the character of Pi soon becomes a trusted narrator. I was greatly relived when at the end of the first part of the novel Martel breaks convention and simply says

"This story has a happy ending."

The ending, when it does come is not what the reader expects and as such is quite a coup on the part of the author. the reality of living adrift the ocean for several months in the company of a tiger is wonderfully realised and not for a second does real disbelief set in. In fact every now and then I'd reach the end of a chapter and close the book just to take in the cover again. As one character notes towards the end of the book "very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger." That the carefully realised 'factual' introduction sets the whole thing up as a 'true' story makes the whole thing that much more enjoyable.

Critics have compared Life of Pi to Auster, Calvino and Hemingway and while I can see how these comparisons are valid it is also something of a disservice to Martel - as his Booker nomination (and - fingers crossed - success) shows he has carved out a literary niche all to himself. This is without a doubt the best book about a shipwreck I have read since William Golding's Pincher Martin and the only book with a tiger in it that I have ever enjoyed. Highly recommended.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Harcourt Brace
ISBN: 0151008116
336 pages