Cross-posted from Goodreads:
'I can well imagine an athiest's last words: "White, white! L-L-Love! My God!" - and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying "Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain," and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.' - Yann Martel, Life of Pi
I'm teetering on the cusp of giving this book a 5 out of 5. While the twist in the tail effectively made me question the whole story that came before it, even then I still thought that, whichever way it happened, it did happen. The thing is, I was taken in from the Author's Note on. Not only did I believe what I read in the Note, I related to it, and was amused by it. I couldn't wait to start in on the story proper, and when I did, I could not decide who I had more admiration for as a storyteller: Pi or Martel. The character of Pi seemed like a real individual of Indian background, and the character of Martel seemed like a real writer. While the circumstances of Pi's upbringing and his castaway adventure were extraordinary, extraordinary things happen, and I was convinced that the story was based on fact.
Perhaps the first thing that should have alerted me to what was going on was the argument in favour of zoos. I bought it. In the back of my mind I was thinking, how could one not-rich family manage that many contained animals without them (the animals) suffering some hardship? But I let myself believe that the compassion and ethics of Pi's father somehow made it possible, that his care was enough. I was impressed with the simplicity and rationality of the argument.
The narrative devices used - the occasional interruption of the adventure story to reveal a little more about the story-gathering process and the present life of Pi, and the addition of the interview 'transcripts' at the end of the tale - were effective and artfully used. I was crushing on Pi, and giving kudos to Martel for his sensitivity as a conduit and his dedication to presenting the story as completely as he could. I enjoyed all the relationships in the book, both human-with-human and human-with-animal. There were some beautiful descriptive passages and enough incidental humour to balance things.
When suspending disbelief did become a little challenging for me at some of the later points of the core narrative - I hope giving the indicators of blindness and meerkats does not act as a spoiler for anyone else who is able to come on the story as unpoliticised as I did - I allowed that someone suffering exposure and deprived of 'normal' amounts of food, water and human interaction might have difficulty differentiating between dreams and reality - inner and outer life - (hell, I do, and I'm very well catered for!) and actually experience reality at a different level to most.
In hot weather at the end of a fortnight's summer holidays, I was able to read the book in a weekend. It was highly readable and engaging - more so than I anticipated. Despite being aware of the book since it won the Man Booker Prize, and interested in reading it, and even though the movie is now being promoted in the mainstream (and I fully intend to see it in 3D if I can), I still came to it knowing only the bare bones of the subject matter: that it was about a boy lost at sea with a tiger. Therefore the references to Richard Parker prior to the revealing of his identity held their potency for me. As I have indicated, I was taken in by the story. For me, both 'versions' seem plausible, especially given the qualifiers of Chapter 22 (which I have quoted in its entirety at the beginning of this review), and Pi's tears recorded in the 'transcript'. And for me, I'd have been happy to sit with the belief that a remarkable man had an incredible adventure, the specifics of which might not be confirmed.
I think it may be the deliberate deceit that pulls me up short of the 5-star rating. While there's no doubt that it is masterful storytelling that facilitates my belief, and that such creative development of an alternative reality is what writing fiction is about, I can't help feeling that there's something a tiny bit nasty about the way Martel has delivered his in this book. It comes across as a sort of showing off at the reader's expense: his bestselling proof he (and other masters of deceit) can make anyone believe what he wants them to. Or maybe it's just that I want to believe it? Perhaps I'll move on from this emotional reaction, but right now I have that "I've-been-gullible-and-had-the-wool-pulled-over-my-eyes, you-lied-to-me-and-I-should-have-known-better" feeling that I really don't like, that feeling that makes hard, cynical, emotionally disconnected people, and makes me feel naive for wanting to believe people are innocent until proven guilty. Maybe it's the hard truth that this is how things are that I'm objecting to, rather than any flaw in what Martel has done? He has, after all, argued for the better story. He has engaged, entertained, and provoked. Is it a transgression or an unkindness to the reader that he has utilised a little artifice in the process, or is this in fact further evidence of commendable art?