Booker choice all at sea
Life of Pi, By Yann Martel.
By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 2002).
LIFE OF PI, the winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize, is a delightful little book--and I mean that in the worst possible way. Author Yann Martel and the British-based committee that chose the winning book made much of the novel's supposed religious overtones. But Martel's claim that this is a book that will make you believe in God, or at least question why you don't, is a gross exaggeration.
Life of Pi is no Moby Dick. By choosing to award the Commonwealth and Ireland's highest literary prize to Life of Pi, the Man Booker committee has rewarded the most irritating characteristic of contemporary literary writing: whimsy.
The plot summary is itself discouraging. A young Indian boy, Piscine Molitor Patel--named after a Parisian swimming pool--cutely adopts Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. A shipwreck strands him on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a 205-kilogram Bengal tiger. Relying on nothing but his wits and an amusingly frank survival guidebook, "Pi" must find a way to collect water and catch fish. Pi must also tame the tiger, which has its own name to inspire a collective groan, Richard Parker (which was also the name of a victim in a notorious case of cannibalism at sea in the 1870s).
Reviewers and publicists have described this story as a boys' adventure for grown-ups and as a fable of magical realism. But it lacks the seriousness to rank among either. Because the tale is told tongue in cheek--precluding readers' suspension of disbelief--it fails as a boys' adventure story. Nor does the novel have the historical sweep and philosophical depth on which magical realism depends. Life of Pi gives you the feeling the author is just fooling around. Moreover, and this is its worst failing, Pi's sojourn in the lifeboat--with no speaking companions--feels about 50 days too long.