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Life of Pi by Yann Martel


Rating: (Recommended)


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Summer fiction reading should transport us to an unusual place, and tell a memorable, compelling story. Using that standard, one of the finest examples of perfect summer reading is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. The core of the story involves Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi, who is shipwrecked as a teenager when the cargo ship transporting his family and his father’s zoo from India to Canada capsizes in the Pacific. In the same lifeboat is Richard Parker, the name of a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger, who is hungry and not tame as the journey begins. They cross the Pacific in over 200 days in a perfect story, that’s so hard to believe, that it’s followed by a brief, believable story. There’s a surprise chapter about an island that’s not a refuge. Here’s an excerpt that describes Pi’s situation after 130 pages and just a few days in the lifeboat:

“In the morning I could not move. I was pinned by weakness to the tarpaulin. Even thinking was exhausting. I applied myself to thinking straight. At length, as slowly as a caravan of camels crossing a desert, some thoughts came together.
The day was like the previous one, warm, and overcast, the clouds low, the breeze light. That was one thought. The boat was rocking gently, that was another.
I thought of sustenance for the first time. I had not had a drop to drink or a bite to eat or a minute of sleep in three days. Finding this obvious explanation for my weakness brought me a little strength.
Richard Parker was still on board. In fact, he was directly beneath me. Incredible that such a thing should need consent to be true, but it was only after much deliberation, upon assessing various mental items and points of view, that I concluded that it was not a dream or a delusion or a misplaced memory or a fancy or any other such falsity, but a solid, true thing witnessed while in a weakened, highly agitated state. The truth of it would be confirmed as soon as I felt well enough to investigate.
How I failed to notice for two and a half days a 450-pound Bengal tiger in a lifeboat twenty-six feet long was a conundrum I would have to try to crack later, when I had more energy. The feat surely made Richard Parker the largest stowaway, proportionally speaking, in the history of navigation. From tip of nose to tip of tail he took up over a third of the length of the ship he was on.
You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better. We see that in sports all the time, don’t we? The tennis challenger starts strong but soon loses confidence in his playing. The champion racks up the games. But in the final set, when the challenger has nothing left to lose, he becomes relaxed again, insouciant, daring. Suddenly he’s playing like the devil and the champion must work hard to get those last points. So it was with me.”

Around one hundred pages later, Pi has more energy and time for reflection and insight. Here’s an excerpt about opposites:

“Otherwise, to be a castaway is to be caught up in grim and exhausting opposites. When it is light, the openness of the sea is blinding and frightening. When it is dark, the darkness is claustrophobic. When it is day, you are hot and wish to be cool and dream of ice cream and pour sea water on yourself. When it is night, you are cold and wish to be warm and dream of hot curries and wrap yourself in blankets. When it is hot, you are parched and wish to be wet. When it rains, you are nearly drowned and wish to be dry. When there is food, there is too much of it and you must feast. When there is none, there is truly none and you starve. When the sea is flat and motionless, you wish it would stir. When it rises up and the circle that imprisons you is broken by hills of water, you suffer that peculiarity of the high seas, suffocation in open spaces, and you wish the sea would be flat again. The opposites often place at the same moment, so that when the sun is scorching you till you are stricken down, you are also aware that it is drying the strips of fish and meat that are hanging from your lines and that it is blessing for your solar stills. Conversely, when a rain squall is replenishing your fresh-water supplies, you also know that the humidity will affect your cured provisions and that some will probably go bad, turning pasty and green. When rough weather abates, and it becomes clear that you have survived the sky’s attack and the sea’s treachery, your jubilation is tempered by the rage that so much fresh water should fall directly into the sea and by the worry that it is the last rain you will ever see, that you will die of thirst before the next drops fall.
The worst pair of opposites is boredom and terror. Sometimes your life is a pendulum swing from one to the other. The sea is without a wrinkle. There is not a whisper of wind. The hours last forever. You are so bored you sink into a state of apathy close to a coma. Then the sea becomes rough and your emotions are whipped into a frenzy. Yet even these two opposites do not remain distinct. In your boredom there are elements of terror: you break down into tears; you are filled with dread; you scream; you deliberately hurt yourself. And in the grip of terror – the worst storm – you yet feel boredom, a deep weariness with it all.”

Especially if you spend part of the summer on or near a body of water, read Life of Pi and imagine what could be.

Steve Hopkins, June 12, 2002


ã 2002 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2002 issue of Executive Times


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