Thursday, 3 January 2008

Shipwreck Survival by Numbers


Over Christmas, I finally got around to reading Yann Martel's 2002 Mann Booker Prize winning novel 'The Life of Pi'.

This is one of those books that seem to covertly dig down into your sub-conscious, bedding itself into your psyche as if it has always been there. And like a half-forgotten dream, images from scenes in the book keep floating unexpectedly back into my consciousness. Not always (or particularly) nice ones.

The Life of Pi is a story about survival in the most extreme of conditions, and being ship-wrecked in the middle of the Indian Ocean on a lifeboat whose other occupant is a 450-pound Bengal tiger is about as extreme as it gets. Especially as the tiger has already torn apart and eaten the lifeboat's other crew (a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutang named Orange Juice since you ask). The premise is absurd, and so you take the story in as if it were a nursery tale. Occasionally you look again at what you are actually reading, and it's like the moment you realise that when Little red Riding Hood arrives at Granny's house, the wolf has probably hidden the remains of Granny's dismembered half-gnawed bloody bones under the bed and is anticipating ripping a small child to shreds and crunching its skull to get at the brains.

Rather than confront the terrifying narrative head-on, you begin to look for traces of an underlying parable, or a moral message. Maybe Pi's dilemma is an analogy of the human condition; adrift alone on a random sea, centimetres away from doom, doing everything but confront the real elephant in the room (the tiger in the boat), which might be resource expletion or global warming.

Or maybe the story is a pantheistic parable of how we are mere small flecks in the vast wonderful interplay of Nature?

Or maybe the book is a comment on the ethical dilemmas facing starving vegetarians?

Or maybe just maybe, it really is a true account of how a young boy managed to survive 227 days on a lifeboat with a tiger. If it were, then the number 227 itself would be highly unlikely (think about what the fraction 22/7 approximates. Martel strews the story with little intriguing gew-gaws like this; take the tiger's name for example, Richard Parker... yup, cue for you to get googling)

The little details are compelling in suspending disbelief. Martel seems to have fully researched and explored from every angle the possible real means of survival Pi might have used. Indeed, I feel that if I am ever ship-wrecked myself, my chances of surviving have increased dramatically after reading this book. (Also my chances of becoming a lion-tamer should I want a career-break). It's a good distraction technique whilst the magician does his greater illusion - look at the effects of seawater on fraying rope over many months, rather than whoo-aaa!Where did that bloody big tiger come from!!!

Martel's writing really is deliciously good. So much so, that at times I was beginning to feel sea-sick. Even during the necessary long drawn-out stretches of boredom when Pi could do little more than stare at the horizon for weeks on end, the reader isn't tempted to flip a few pages. You want to stay there with Pi, and will him on to live. Martel's skillful story-telling is a joy to read; sometimes you want to just savour his words, and secretly hope that Pi and the tiger can drift on forever. You don't even mind when the absurdity is raised a notch - a floating carnivorous island populated by meercats for instance - it all seems naturally interwoven, myths and fable with animal husbandry and tips on how to eat a sea-turtle.

And then Pi comes across some solid earth, and the tiger escapes into the jungle, and that would be that, yes? (I'm not giving anything away; the reader is told right at the beginning that Pi settles down with a wife and family in Canada).

Oh, but there is one last kink in the tiger's tail. In the final pages you are jolted with an alternative telling of the story which turns everything you've just read on its head. And it is not nice. And, well, let me just say that like God, I too prefer the story with the animals in it.

Sweet dreams!

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