Antoine de Saint Exupery's story The Little Prince begins with the author recounting a period from his childhood when he discovered just how limited an adult's imagination can be. Perhaps he tells us this to explain why he chose to become an aircraft pilot and live among the night sky where anything and everything can be real. When he meets the Little Prince of the title his plane has broken down and he is stranded in the deserts of North Africa.
I'm sure most of us would have been slightly more nonplussed than our author to be greeted by a young boy asking us to draw him a sheep. But Exupery takes it in his stride and learns the story of his new companion. The Little Prince is a beautiful story about a voyage of self-discovery and the nature of love written as a children's tale. Each time I've re-read it I've often wondered about the fact that the hero is a child and how it is told in the language of a story for young readers, yet the content is so incredibly adult.
"What is essential is invisible to the eye" couldn't be more true when considered in the light of an adult parable hiding inside the story of a child as in the case of The Little Prince. Perhaps it is the same element in Yann Martel's Life Of Pi that was responsible for me being continually reminded of Exupery's work as I was reading it, as it too features a young man whose adventures result in some very adult philosophizing. On the surface the stories seem to have little in common, but at the heart of each is the wide eyed wonder of a child experiencing the world for the first time in all it's glory.
We first meet Pi (his parents had named him Piscine Molitor in honour of a friend's favourite swimming pool in Paris, and Pi wisely took it upon himself to change his name as soon as possible – there are far too many temptations in a name like Piscine for other children not to take advantage of it) through the eyes of the writer who is preparing to recount his tale. It is in present day Toronto, Canada, that the story starts, but it doesn't take us long to go back in time and across the Pacific Ocean to the Indian province of Pondincherry.
Pi is the youngest of two sons in a family that has the unique distinction of owning a zoo. While his classmates might receive a cheerful farewell from their mothers as they head off to school, Pi's morning benediction includes the growls of lions and tigers, the trumpet of an elephant, and a wide variety of grunts and squeaks from the animal kingdom. It is easy to see how his awe and delight in the wonders of the world was born growing up in this type of environment. That he also chooses to celebrate his wonder of the world by embracing each of the major religions India, is somewhat odd, but is completely in keeping with his character.
Of course all of the background information, Pi's childhood in India, and the times we meet him as an adult in Toronto, are only preparatory for the main event, his sojourn aboard the life boat with an adult Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. His family had decided to emigrate from India to Canada, and in order to pay their way had sold the majority of the zoo's animals to the United States. Therefore, instead of flying like most immigrants, they take a tramp steamer to shepherd them to their new homes. It's during this voyage that the shipwreck happens, leaving Pi alone aboard a life boat with a zebra, an orangutang, a hyena, and the aforementioned tiger.
The natural order exerts itself upon the life boat over the first few days as the hyena dispatches the zebra and the orangutang while Pi can only hope he continues to ignore him. It's only when Richard Parker recovers from his seasickness that Pi realizes that it has been the tiger's presence that has kept him safe from attack. Of course that doesn't prevent him from being terrified of his protector, and his struggle to figure out a way in which the two of them can survive in harmony is the crux of the story for the balance of their voyage together.
Life Of Pi was originally published in 2002 and received all sorts of critical accolades, including being awarded the Mann Booker Prize. Now in 2007 Random House Canada through its Alfred A. Knoff imprint has published a lavishly illustrated new edition with beautiful full-page colour plates by Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanic. To select an illustrator for the book, an international competition was held, and out of the thousands of artists who entered Torjanic's work was judged best suited to the needs of the book.
Not having seen any of the other entrants there's not much basis for comparison, but to be honest I can't see how anyone could have done a better job than Torjanic. His work has the lushness of Paul Gauguin's paintings of Fiji, making it ideal for capturing the richness and vibrancy of the South Pacific locations that predominate in the book, combined with an illustrator's capacity for capturing a moment in a story and reproducing it with the accuracy of capturing a frame in a film.
What I found especially rewarding about Tomislav's work was the fact that the illustrations, no matter the size, were always drawn from Pi's perspective of events (The temptation to say Pi -eyed view is too great to resist, I'm sorry) reinforcing the fact that this is his story, while making it easier for the reader to understand what he is experiencing. Of course this also serves to draw us into the story, because when we look at the pictures, we become the object of the subject matter's focus as much as they are ours. So, when the perspective of an illustration has us looking down the length of the lifeboat at the back of a 450 pound Bengal tiger, and his head is turned to look over his shoulder, his one eye stares back at us, not some unknown target.
Yann Martel's creation, much like Saint Exupery's all those years ago, is about the power of faith and having the ability to believe in the invisible bonds that connect us, one to another. None of us have ever seen the love we claim to have for another person or being, yet we are confidant it exists. Why? We have no proof, yet like Pi with Richard Parker, we are assured that the person we love isn't going to do the equivalent of eating us.
In his poem, "i carry your heart, i carry it in my heart", American poet e. e. cummings wrote that love "is the wonder that holds the stars apart." In Life Of Pi Yann Martel brings that wonder to life in his story of the young man trapped in a lifeboat for nearly a year with an adult Bengal tiger. The illustrations by Tomislav Torjanac, in the newly published illustrated edition, not only reflect that wonder, but succeed in drawing the reader into a deeper appreciation by offering us the means to enter into the story as a participant.
For the longest time I resisted reading Life Of Pi because I was afraid of being disappointed by it failing to live up to the expectations of its publicity. The last thing I expected was to find myself reading a book to match The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery in its simple beauty and ability to express awe in the wonder of life. Yann Martel really did create a thing of beauty and a joy forever when he published this story, and I for one will always be grateful.