“My suffering left me sad and gloomy”
THE problem with coming to this book after the film event is that the image of the boy and the tiger marooned on a boat has already passed into popular culture, an indelible, all knowing fact. The punchline has been given away. If you had read the first part of this book you could not imagine what was going to happen in part two. It made me wish for schooldays where someone else (not Hollywood) chose my reading as part of a greater coursework. The cover, the publicity, the chat all do this novel no service whatsoever. They may persuade you to read it but they do not in any way enhance your enjoyment. To set off on a totally different course, it reminded me of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s travels, the era when a novel could put forward ideas. Also reading a book where I know the pay-off line just as surely as I know about Lilliput invites that comparison. I am jealous of anyone who read this without such prior knowledge. In fact it is a book about philosophy. It pipped Tim Winton’s Dirt Music to the Booker prize in 2002, more chamber music, word and note perfect, to Winton’s bluegrass, more intellectual, less emotional. In fact was there an emotion there?
We have the schoolyard bullying where Pi wants to be known obviously as the mathematical Pi not the playground Pee, we have growing up in a zoo where he can humanise the animals inner thoughts. Later he will use 27 lines to describe his tiger’s looks including:
“His head was large and round, displaying formidable sideburns, a stylish goatee and some of the finest whiskers of the cat world, thick, long, white.”
And another 24 on the noises tigers make. He knows his animals. And his religion. This boy is on the cusp of three religions no less. And Martel uses all this Dali-Magritte style cabaret fantasy to test his own thinkings. Pi is the inquisitor. And Pi shall be tested. And it is not just by tiger because there is a singularly brutal – if anything in a fantasy nightmare can be called brutal – scene of hyena and zebra.
I presumed Martel was Indian and this was semi autobiographical in that Martel like his hero had majored in religious studies and zoology but far from it Martell was born in Spain to French Canadian parents, and his degree was philosophy.
It is a very clever book, almost too clever, he is like his Pi, top of the class, A+ material, he barely crosses into the reality, so it is a mind game which he relates with a straight face: “My brief experience with the relations of unconfined wild animals in lifeboats had me expect…” Later…”My options were limited to perching above a tiger or hovering over sharks.” Very metaphysical. He captures the Indian vernacular very well.
Quite early on he is warning you where all this is going. “I wish I could convey the perfection of a seal slipping into the water…or a lion merely turning its head. But the language founders in such seas. Better to picture it in your head if you want to feel it”.It is down to you to supply the feelings, if you want. The faith.
What is really astonishing is the immense detail. He knows the difference between a blue shark and a mako and a whitetip. He reports on the best way to butcher a turtle and which are the best bits to eat. It is hard to believe that he has not actually been a castaway, that he has not actually encountered these fantastical events, the contrast between allegory and realism is arresting.
I am also struck how the original cover – from Knopf Canada, after it was turned down by a number of UK houses – does not give the game away…