Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Life of Pi is a piscatory novel of sorts. How fun is that word? Piscatory – a literary work portraying the lives of fishermen or anglers. And since the main character is named Piscine, which comes from the same root, my first sentence is nearly a pun.  

Today’s reverence for fish-related words comes from one of my favorite blogs – wordmall, which posted today on a bunch of English words coming from the Greek ichthus and the Latin piscis, both meaning fish. 

Some examples:

ichthyomancy: divination by means of the heads or entrails of fishes (I would like to know if this kind of divining only relates to oceanic issues, or if some fish guts could tell me things about political and social events as well)

ichthyolatry: fish-worship, the worship of a fish-god

piscicle: A small fish (but not a frozen one, as I would have preferred)

piscose: Of a taste: fishy (I would love, just once, to use this word in a wine-tasting context, just to see if anyone would call me on it) 

But back to Life of Pi. (If you haven’t read this novel, you might not want to read on. I don’t give up any huge spoilers, but I do discuss some things that might ruin a fresh reading of it.) 

Life of Pi is one of the most imaginative novels I have read in a long time. I knew before opening the book that the story centered on a boy trapped at sea in a small lifeboat with a 430-pound Bengal tiger. However, I also knew there was going to be some kind of trick or twist. Anyone who has ever mentioned the book around me would get a kind of funny look on their face and ask, “wait, you’ve read that right?” and I would say no and then they would get all hush hush. Which is why my criticism of the book might not be truly fair – I spent my time expiscating*, instead of simply focusing on the story. 

Still, I have some concerns. In general, I prefer books that reveal the essence of a character through their actions or through situations where I can hear them speak and watch them interact with other characters. This seems so much more immediate to me as a reader – that whole “uninterrupted dream” thing is really what I consider the most delightful reading experience. I grow quickly wary of a character that spends most of his time explaining himself to me or explaining the world to me and what he thinks. Although a truly compelling voice can get away with this for a while, I find a story grows stale, no matter how extraordinary the material, when the “telling” takes precedence over the acts and events. Which is what I felt happened in Life of Pi. 

Life of Pi is also interrupted by a series of italicized interludes, semi-scientific observations which read somewhat like a case study. The tone of these interludes runs quite perpendicular to the tone established by Piscine’s adolescent and angst-filled narrative style and so they struck me as, at worst, affected, and at best, unnecessary. It is a heavy-handed tactic, but only one of several Martel employs throughout the book. (For those of you who have read it, the ending interview with its flat out refusal to let the reader make up their own mind, was the crowning blow of this heavy-handedness). 

Still, the story gathers a huge amount of momentum near page 90 (in my copy) once Pi is aboard the lifeboat with the animals. The next 190 pages almost attain that vivid dream I was hoping for. Almost. Pi still continues to over explain and to tell me exactly what I am supposed to make of any possible symbolism hinted at by the active parts of the novel. The story of a teenager spending seven months at sea on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger is absolutely absurd. But because of what this absurdity comes to mean, it isn’t really absurd at all. Because of the twist, this absurdity demands the reader be treated with respect. From the beginning. 

I will give an example. Chapter 56 consists entirely of three paragraphs philosophizing about fear. These three paragraphs are well written, they are intuitive, they are discerning and insightful. But to me, they are also a cop-out. Reading these three paragraphs doesn’t make me feel anything. They are only words on a page. They lack the ability to construct a fictional reality that could shove some real fear down my throat. This would be far more instructional, far more experiential and ultimately more rewarding.  

Pushing the limits of fantasy brought on by trauma is incredibly engaging, as well as touching. Human memory is a fragile thing and I love that Martel explores the idea of redemption through storytelling. But at the same time, he doesn’t really attempt to share the story with me, the reader. He doesn’t invite me to participate in Pi’s trauma, to experience my own hunger or thirst, to get my hands dirty, to get covered in fish slime or scales. I’m only allowed to watch all this from a distance safely mediated by Pi and his constant analysis of what’s going on.  

*expiscating – “fishing out”, discovering something through investigation    

21 Responses to “Yann Martel – Life of Pi”

  1. Heather T.

    This book is near the top of my TBR Mountain and your review has helped nudge it closer to the top. Thank you.

  2. びっくり

    “The story of a teenager spending seven months at sea on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger is absolutely absurd.”

    I know what you mean: when I was a teen, my folks wouldn’t let me spend more than three months at sea on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. 😉

    The local book store usually has about thirty books in English. I never know how they decide which books to carry, but the last time I checked out their shelves, Pi was there. It seemed a little intriguing, but not enough to hook me. The exorbitant mark up really ruins the taste of the bait. Also, the pile of unread books on my shelves keeps me from reeling in my finds.

  3. verbivore

    Heather – I’d be very interested to hear what you think of it. I’ve had mixed reviews from a bunch of friends. Martel is trying to do something unique and so the book is worth discussing.

    Sharon – I was the opposite, I almost put it down before I even got to the Pacific Ocean section, which would have been unfair so I read the whole thing. The beginning and end were the most difficult parts for me to get into.

    Bikkuri – What protective parents you must have had! 😉 It’s a shame the bookstore has to mark up the English books so much, I have the same problem in Switzerland and so try to avoid getting “lured” into the store unless I have something I know I want to buy.

  4. Litlove

    What a very interesting and beautifully written review this is! I have this book to read but have always held back from it, never really feeling that hunger for it. I’m not good with books that have absurd premises. One day I may read it but I am feeling very enlightened by your intelligent review!

  5. Logophile

    What a great review and wordmall looks amazing! Like Litlove, I’ve also got this book, and have in fact had it for a few years, but something’s held me back. This may help get it up the tbr pile!

  6. Eva

    What a fun review! I loved all the new words. 🙂 I read this book a couple of years ago, and I ended up liking it way more than I expected.

  7. verbivore

    Litlove – The book is interesting in many ways because the absurd premise gets flipped on its head, which may make you like it. I just couldn’t get past some of my frustration with the writing.

    Logophile – Wordmall is so much fun, and I definitely think you would like it.

    Eva – I am disappointed that the reverse was true for me. I was expecting to love this book. But so goes it sometimes. I will be putting my answers together soon for your meme, by the way, looking forward to it!

  8. Dew

    I had fun with the fish words, but then I got to your warning. I have this book out from the library and will be reading it in the next couple weeks, so I had to skip everything. But if you notice me posting about it after I read it, will you remind me that you have a post I really want to read?

  9. jeane

    I found Life of Pi intriguing, but rather annoying at times too, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. You’ve explained it very well; I really appreciated reading your review. Love the fishy words, too!

  10. verbivore

    Dewey – I can’t wait to see what you think. Will definitely be looking for your post. Glad you liked my fishy prose.

    Jeane – It was doubly frustrated in many ways because I did feel that it was such a neat concept. His overall project was great but I just wish he’d done something different with the style. Perhaps I am just picky. But its good to know I’m not the only one who got annoyed with this book. 🙂

  11. Dorothy W.

    I listened to this book on audio a few years back and remember enjoying all the tension of the middle sections quite a lot but feeling ambivalent about the ending and the twist and all that. In fact, I didn’t like it much at all. I wonder if listening rather than reading was the better choice — listening sometimes lets me ignore writing that might annoy me if I were reading slowly and could notice more.

  12. Melanie

    You’ve really captured my inchoate discomfort with this book. I always knew there was something fishy about it (sorry, couldn’t resist) but you put into words the narrative heavy-handedness which is ultimately unnecessary. I like his ideas, and as anyone reading my blog can see, I’m a fan of Yann Martel and his other (admittedly probably also a bit heavy-handed) political literary projects. Thanks for an entertaining review and vocabulary lesson!

  13. verbivore

    Dorothy – Such a good point. I sometimes get a book in audio format for that very reason, I think it can change your experience of it significantly.

    Dewey – I’ll be checking your blog for your thoughts!

    Melanie – I’d like to read more Martel and I saw he’s coming out with a new novel this year sometime so we’ll have to see what we think!

  14. artisticmisfit

    Thanks for this post. I just started reading the book last night, so I stopped reading your post when you said to.

  15. Zlamushka

    Amazing review. I ve read the book myself and was stunned. Unputdownable! I was so struck when I read the last chapter, it was so unexpected. And then comes the next question. What happened to that island with acidic algae. O totally believed him everything, even that he ate RP´s pooh :-S

    More novels comming out this year? GREAT!

  16. mel

    I first saw Life of Pi about a year ago in a bookstore in Singapore where it was shortlisted for the Governor General Award. I love Singapore so I somehow felt I needed to read this book. I am glad I did. The idea of the story is very original and I learned quite a bit about Zoos from the book. It kept my attention to the end.

  17. John

    I just read it, and while I see what you describe as heavy handedness, I’m not sure I agree. For example, I felt that Pi’s explanations were a fascinating window into his way of thinking, rather than an authorial instruction of how to understand the narrative. I also disagree entirely about the final interview: I think the decision made by the characters in no way forces the reader to make up his mind in one way or the other, but rather leaves you to think for a long time about the role and meaning of narrative in our understanding of the world. I thoroughly enjoyed the book!

  18. Ella

    I also have to say thank you for putting into words how I felt while reading this. It’s always tickled me with frustration and I’ve never worked out how I felt about the ending. But you’ve said it right – brilliant concept with fiction and trauma , how unstabilizing the upturning of the absurd premise is, and slight heavy-handedness…. I just always find myself frowning slightly whenever I think of it as I can’t work out my attitude towards it and never have been able to… I am very fond of it though, might reread it actually… It’s like as a reader the only time he lets you in is in the interview and you realize that for the past however many hundred pages you’ve been locked out . It’s interesting. Unsettling. Which I gues serves to emphasize that trauma…

    • verbivore

      I should go back to this book. It would be interesting to read a second time, once you’ve figured out the “trick” so to speak and see if it affects the way I feel about the text.

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