Friday, November 22, 2002

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.

Nevertheless, the Booker judges' choice of a light novel was not altogether surprising. Before meeting to choose a winner from among the short-listed novels, one of the judges, comedian David Baddiel, touched off a row in literary London by bemoaning the preponderance of "pompous, portentous and pretentious fiction." Although fellow judge and critic Erica Wagner immediately came out in support of the "longer, denser read," rightly saying that "after all, it is a prize for literature," Baddiel was obviously not alone on the panel. In choosing Life of Pi, the committee awarded the Booker to perhaps the most frivolous novel ever to receive the coveted prize, which comes with a cash award of £50,000 ($79,000).

Still more disconcerting is the apparent moral blindness of the judges. In its determination to look on the bright side, Life of Pi presents us--with a wink and a nudge--the fantasy of an Indian boy who believes simultaneously in God, Allah and Vishnu. There is value in acknowledging the possibility of goodness, but a novel that turns three of India's religions into an amusing foible--not for black comedy, but for vaudeville--obscures rather than enlightens.

No murderous riots here; the reactions to Pi's trinity of religions are trivial, summed up by his brother's teasing: "So, Swami Jesus, will you go on the haj this year?" When the narrator takes on religious absolutists, he descends into platitudes. "These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart." This banality amounts to a refusal to look for the truth--surely the greatest failure for any writer. These are the homilies of Forrest Gump, not the wisdom of Ishmael.