I finished reading Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi a few days ago, and I’m clearly at least three years too late. With all the hype heaped on the book after it won the prestigious Booker Prize, and the reams of rave reviews (from Canada and around the world) that followed, I expected something pretty good.
What I found was a decent novel, but nothing spectacular or important. Sure, coming from a Canadian literary dominated by Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, The Life of Pi was a fresh and exciting find. It was unexpected. But now that the freshness has worn off, and the novel’s main conceit has been dispersed all around the internet, it’s painfully clear that Martel’s book isn’t anything special.
The main flaw of The Life of Pi is obvious to anyone who’s read the book, regardless of whether they want to admit it or not. There simply isn’t enough story, character or idea to fill a novel. The novel is based on one gimmick, and has only one developed character. And despite an overlong beginning that tries to flesh things out, it’s all too clear that you’re only reading the novel for its final third. The rest is filler and, while sometimes interesting (the parts on animal behaviour and zoos are fun to read), seems to be there only because, well, other books have beginnings, and no one will buy a sixty-page novel. In a cruel twist, the best-written and most rewarding part of the first half of the book is the prologue, in the neat form of an author’s note.
Another problem is the writing style. Martel writes literature as if he was trying to write literature, instead of just telling a story. As a result, too many parts of the novel are self-important and wordy—and lack the weight that truly makes literature literature. It’s a good thing he has talent then, because sometimes his style works, and the book starts to flow and becomes a pleasure to read. These moments are just too rare to elevate the paper-thin story.
But whatever Martel’s shortcomings, The Life of Pi is still eons ahead of most of the hackery that sells like mad these days (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown!). It’s a mildly fascinating (and surprisingly gruesome) tale of survival on the high seas that manages to weave religion, science fiction and day-to-day monotony into something that is ultimately thematically rich. However, unlike the old Indian character who claims he can tell a story that will make someone believe in God, Martel’s story is more about the role of stories, legends and myths in a society that is leaning ever more toward cold, boring facts than a discussion of religion. It is as a parable about the need for embellishment and imagination that The Life of Pi is most successful and valuable.
Jesus, Mary, Mohammed and Vishnu bless Yann Martel for that.
Rating: 2.0 / 4.0