In his American debut, the prize-winning Canadian fiction writer Yann Martel begins with an explanation of how this particular tale first transfixed him. It was a story, he recalls, to "make you believe in God."
That's ambitious, even for an accomplished fabulist and metaphysical philosopher, but it's also a very clever way to start people turning pages. Right out of the gate, "Life of Pi" is full of fierce but friendly storytelling energy. It's a real adventure: brutal, tender, expressive, dramatic and disarmingly funny.
Piscine Molitor Patel, named for a Parisian swimming pool, is the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, "once the capital of that most modest of colonial empires, French India." Such exoticism serves him well; Pi's early surroundings, as he and Martel describe them, are wondrous. "I spent more hours than I can count a quiet witness to the highly mannered, manifold expressions of life that grace our planet," he says. "It is something so bright, loud, weird and delicate as to stupefy the senses."
That's exquisite, but only if the author can provide examples. Happily, Pi's analysis is repeatedly borne out by Martel's astonishing abilities as an informed and impassioned describer.
Pi spends his precocious adolescence studying readily available zoology, and, to the eventual dismay of his parents, three unique religions. "They didn't know that I was a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Teenagers always hide a few things from their parents, isn't that so? All sixteen-year- olds have secrets, don't they?" His spiritual affairs are rendered with loving care, and the inevitable farcical debate among Pi's religious educators is hilarious, if a touch overextended.
Soon thereafter, Pi and his family and many of their animals plan to emigrate to Canada on a Japanese freighter, but partway through their voyage the ship sinks. The disaster strands Pi in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a lifeboat with a seasick orangutan, a wounded zebra, a frenetic hyena and an eerily placid Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
By this point, two things are clear: 1) that "Life of Pi" is very difficult to stop reading, and 2) that none of its details is a throwaway, least of all a tiger named Richard Parker. Explanation comes by way of an interesting sub- story, one of many well-placed digressions. Another is the grimly memorable lesson Pi's father once taught him about the dangers of tigers.
And a third, which synthesizes those others, is the moment in the lifeboat when Richard Parker first lays eyes on Pi and the narrator considers himself a goner. Martel imparts a great pang of suspense -- made all the more titillating by what follows, a nuanced and absorbing description of the animal's sublime beauty.
After some unsparingly gory conflict in the boat, Pi and Richard Parker are left alone together. It spoils nothing to say that they coexist on the open ocean for more than 200 days. ("A story is always better appreciated if its ending is known first," the author states in a disclaimer early on.)
As Pi somehow finds the resources to sustain his life, Martel finds the wherewithal to sustain the spirit and vitality of his narration. The sense that this is not a coincidence provides much of the book's delight.
Splashing through the story, like the sea creatures swirling around Pi's besieged vessel, are abundant epiphanies -- some shimmering just below the surface, others lurking but less visible. Martel's prose is suitably buoyant throughout. How nimbly he navigates through an examination of natural and religious order, of the comforts of containment and the chilling prospects of freedom. One might infer plenty of influences from the author's mannerisms, but his creed is his own: Martel puts his faith in the act of storytelling.
Though it's still difficult to stop reading when the pages run out, Martel closes the book elegantly. (A good thing, too. As Pi puts it, "What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell.") At the end of his ordeal, Pi's story seems so fantastic that people refuse to believe it -- so he decides to revise accordingly.
"Life of Pi" may or may not make its readers believe in God, but they will surely want to believe in Pi Patel. Thanks to Martel's handling, his story is the sort of novel one might share with one's children (of appropriate age), confident in its power to nudge them toward becoming properly curious lovers of books and life.
Jonathan Kiefer is a Berkeley writer.
This article appeared on page RV - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/06/23/RV18924.DTL#ixzz0QKokK7TE