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Tuesday, 15 October, 2002, 07:39 GMT 08:39 UK
Philosophical Pi misses the mark
Yann Martel
Yann Martel lives in Canada

When something is billed as the story of a shipwrecked boy called Pi stuck in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker, you know you are on full steam towards Whimsyville.

The cast also features a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan, and a hyena, as well as a chorus line of Mako sharks, flying fish and turtles.

Full of philosophical musings, and practical details on how to operate a solar still, Life of Pi takes you on a journey from Pondicherry in India across the searing heat of the Pacific.

Life of Pi
The prose comes alive in the middle of the book
Imagine a metaphysical Castaway if Tom Hanks' was an adolescent scamp - rather than a paunchy 40-something - with a companion who weighed 450 pounds and marked out his territory with musky urine.

Mixed bag

But after the blurb is out of the way, Yann Martel's novel is a real curate's egg.

The surreal, allegorical narrative often raises a faint smile with its modest sprinkling of charm and even occasional wit.

But for the most part, it lacks emotional weight, and bearing in mind there is only one real "human" character, little Pi is as thin as tracing paper.

The rare moments of true charm are outweighed by too many indifferent moments when your eyes skim over the words as fast as the lifeboat it describes.

The first 90 pages are a chore, full of unnecessary lumps of cod-philosophy and theology, and what strands there are to be brought together at the end are dealt with in a convoluted way.

Device

It is only in the mid-section of the book, that Martel's prose comes alive, and you find that the mental processes surrounding the catching, landing, killing, butchering and eating of a hawksbill turtle can actually hold your interest.

At this book's heart is not a solid central premise but a gimmick. For someone brought up around a zoo, and who dislikes the anthropomorphisation of animals, how would the opposite process play?

It is the nugget of a good idea, but it is spread out over 300 pages by an author who seems to have a knack for making the fantastic seem utterly mundane.

Martel's storytelling is that of the inveterate traveller. Assuming you come pre-impressed by the sights and sounds they recount, its effort is always misdirected.

The Life of Pi is published by Canongate.

Coverage of the 2002 Booker Prize from BBC News Online and BBCi Arts


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15 Oct 02 | Entertainment
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