Piscine Molitor Patel (named in homage to a French swimming pool, but -- after much teasing -- shortened to Pi) grows up in Pondicherry, India at his family's zoo, where his father teaches him to respect the wildness in the wild animals. (Dad uses a goat to show the bloodthirsty qualities of the big cats and Pi's older brother tells him he'll be the "next goat.") A bright boy, he explores the three major religious faiths and practices pieces of each of them. In 1977, when Pi is 16, his family decides to emigrate to Canada, they take the zoo with them. One stormy night, the vessel that the family and its collection are on explodes and Pi is the only person to escape. He ends up in a lifeboat with a zebra (with a broken leg), an orangutan, a hyena and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. Nature being how it is, soon it is just Pi and Richard Parker in that boat. For 227 days.
Pi cleverly figures out how to keep the tiger sweet by sharing his food and water. Both Pi and I slowly grow to understand that Pi needs Richard Parker, without his companionship in those lonely days he would go mad. Unless, of course, he does go mad. (You decide.) I wouldn't have thought that 11.5 hours of hopelessly drifting in the Pacific would be riveting listening, but it was. Martel's delicious descriptive passages, coupled with the puzzle of what would be Pi's fate kept the headphones plugged in. The payoff is terrific! And I would love spoiler ideas about Pi's (ultimate) relationship with Richard Parker.
I decided to listen to this book (rather than eye read it) because of Jeff Woodman. He reads this novel with his usual attention to detail, gift for emotion, and character creations. The latter is limited to just a few, obviously, but each is distinct and natural- sounding. At the end of the novel, when Pi is being interviewed by the Japanese owners of the ship, Woodman had an extremely difficult job distinguishing between two male characters both speaking Japanese-accented English in a transcript format (no "Mr. Okamoto said" to help you). Couple these characters with Pi's East Indian accent and I occasionally experienced confusion following the conversation.
Woodman's talent as a reader is grasping the emotion of a character or a story, and he breathes life into Pi's saga. Every moment of agonizing loneliness, fear, and deprivation come out in Woodman's reading. You can hear Pi shrinking away into a starved, dehydrated, hallucinating (?) husk. Pi's suffering is very real to a listener, perhaps more so than to a reader. However, Woodman's accent never sounded right to me. Yes, he speaks in that high, clipped, rhythmic delivery that we associate with Indian-accented English, but it always sounded like an accent and not a real person speaking. Is this because I know that Woodman isn't Indian? Food for thought.
Another narrator, Alexander Marshall, reads some short sections portraying a writer researching Pi's journey many years later. He is nondescript as a reader, carefully neutral, so thoroughly different from Woodman's lively and authentic reading that a listener can only wonder what the publisher was thinking.
Martel recently completed a small act of artistic integrity: He sent Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper 101 books -- one approximately every two weeks over four years -- in an attempt to convey the idea of stillness (thoughtfulness, contemplation) to a man who barely gave him a nod during a ceremony honoring him (Martel) and other Canadian artists and writers. Harper needs the time he'd take reading Martel's gift books, the author hoped, to see himself, Canada, and the world on a larger canvas. Contrast Harper's reaction (a few canned thank yous from his staff) with a letter Martel received from Obama, as reported here. (So it was her father Malia read it with.) Say what you like about the President ...
[The photograph of the Piscine Molitor is from a "memoria" website. For a more up-to-date picture, check out Wikimedia Commons (sigh).]
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Narrated by Jeff Woodman and Alexander Marshall
HighBridge Audio, 2002. 11:30