Life of Pi by Yann Martel
You don’t need me to tell you that Life of Pi is a great book. It’s one of those books with almost no dissenting voice doubting it’s brilliance, beloved by almost all who read it. This novel is most certainly not science fiction or fantasy, although at times it could be argued that it tends towards magic realism. I’m therefore going to do something a bit different with this review; since everyone will already tell you that Life of Pi is great, I’m going to focus upon what there is in this novel to appeal to a fantasy fan.
It’s an adventure
Part of the appeal of fantasy and science fiction is that they tend to avoid the pretention which can often pervade ‘respectable literary works.’ The fundamental job of a writer of prose fiction is to tell a good story; all psychological or philosophical depths, all political or spiritual messages, use of language, metaphor and technique, must be underpinned by a good story. This is something which Martel clearly understands, and even expresses very clearly himself through the odd moment of authorial interjection which takes place during the story. What is the most timeless and exciting story telling trope? That of the adventure. Life of Pi tells the story of Pi Patel, a young Indian man whose father runs a zoo. During their journey over the Pacific Ocean to Canada, the ship containing Pi, his family and the majority of their animals sinks, leaving Pi stranded on a life boat with a dying zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger. The majority of the novel relates Pi’s struggle to survive in this bizarre and terrifying situation. If that doesn’t sound like a cracking yarn then there must be something wrong with you. This novel captures the scale of adversity regularly present in fantasy, forced into a situation which spells almost certain death and attempting to survive solely by their own wit and ingenuity.
It isn’t concerned with realism
One of the main reasons I read is for escapism, and I believe that this is something I share with many readers. Where some readers may escape into the sadomasochistic adventures of Anastasia Steele in 50 Shades of Grey, or the quaint 19th century charms of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice or, in my case, another universe or planet , us readers of fiction all share a desire to flee from the humdrum and real and into what is fantastic and beautiful. The real world offers us only the odd rare snatch of beauty, with fiction we can access transcendental beauty at will. However, too much ‘mainstream’ fiction is concerned with simply giving us what ‘is’, or at least an absurdly gritty representation of our own world (which I believe is the number one problem with the ‘thriller’ genre). Life of Pi has no qualms about doing away with the pervasive need for realism which seems to dominate mainstream fiction, and instead tells a fantastical, bizarre and farfetched story. At the conclusion of the frame narrative, the young protagonist challenges two bureaucrats sent to determine the cause of the ship’s sinking as to whether they would prefer a story rife with unbelievable human suffering and nihilistic cruelty, or the uplifting story of a young man managing to achieve a harmonic and beautiful balance with nature. The difference between this and fantasy is that where fantasy creates wonderful and captivating settings, people and places, Life of Pi finds them in our own world. Martel suggests that Earth itself is a bizarre and fascinating fantasy, if only you’d look hard enough.
It’s…it’s just really good ok?
Since I’m not writing a proper review, this is slightly shorter than usual. For more detailed reviews encompassing the philosophical depths, quality of writing, humour and charm this novel has, look elsewhere, there’s nothing more I can say that hasn’t been said before, by better writers, a thousand times. If, like me, you prefer to stick with novels with spaceships or dragons on the cover, I highly recommend that you take a little step outside your comfort zone and give Life of Pi a try. You won’t regret it.