Yann Martel 1963-
Canadian novelist and short-story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Martel's career through 2003.
Martel has been internationally recognized for his award-winning second novel The Life of Pi (2001), a fantastical high-seas adventure about a teenaged Indian boy stranded in a lifeboat with a bevy of wild animals. The novel was awarded England's prestigious Booker Prize in 2002 and Canada's 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. Martel has received numerous awards for his short stories, including the 1991 Journey Prize for the best Canadian short story for “The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” the 1992 National Magazine Award for best short story for “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by American Composer John Morton,” and the 1993 Air Canada Award of the Canadian Authors Association for “Bright Young New Thing.”
Martel was born on June 25, 1963, in Salamanca, Spain. His parents, both civil servants, came from French Canadian descent, and Martel spent his childhood living in several different countries throughout the world, including Costa Rica, France, India, Iran, Mexico, Turkey, Canada, and the United States. His family eventually settled in Canada, taking residence in Montreal, Quebec. Martel's father was a poet as well as a diplomat, once receiving Canada's Governor General's Award for poetry. Martel attended Trent University during the 1980s and graduated with a B.A. from Concordia University in 1985. After college, he worked at a variety of odd jobs, including librarian, tree planter, dishwasher, security guard, and parking lot attendant. During the academic year of 2002 through 2003, Martel served as the Samuel Fischer Professor of Literature in the Department of Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, where he taught a course in “Meeting the Other: The Animal in Western Literature.”
The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories (1993), Martel's first published volume of fiction, is a collection of four short stories. The title story concerns the friendship between two young men, one of whom is dying due to the AIDS virus. To fend off their fears of illness and impending death, the friends share a series of concocted stories about a fictional Italian-Finnish family—the Roccamatios—which they set in the context of real historical events of the twentieth century. While the dying man's stories become increasingly morbid, the stories told by his friend become increasingly optimistic. In “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by American Composer John Morton,” a young man touring Washington, D.C. stumbles into a concert performance given by the Maryland Vietnam War Veterans Chamber Ensemble. “Manners of Dying” is written as a series of letters from a prison warden to the mother of a hanged man, recounting the final hours before his death. Martel's first novel, Self (1996), is a fictional autobiography covering the first thirty years of the narrator's life. The narrator begins his life as a boy and wakes up one morning at the age of eighteen to find that he has inexplicably changed into a girl. He/she eventually becomes a man again around the age of thirty. The narrator experiences two extremely traumatic experiences during his/her life—the death of his/her parents in a plane crash and a brutal rape by a neighbor. Self explores themes of connection, isolation, selfhood, and otherness, as reflected in the narrator's maturing sense of self as he/she develops into a young adult and aspiring writer.
The Life of Pi is narrated by Piscene (“Pi”) Moliter Patel, a sixteen-year-old boy whose family decides to relocate from Pondicherry, India, to Winnipeg, Canada, in 1977. Pi's father had run a small municipal zoo in India, and he decides to bring some of the zoo animals with him on the ship to Canada, hoping to sell them later. After a violent shipwreck, Pi finds himself as the only human survivor in a lifeboat with a small group of wild animals—a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger by the name of Richard Parker. The bulk of the novel describes Pi's 227 days on the lifeboat, during which he experiences the brutal hierarchy of the food chain first hand. The hyena kills and eats the zebra, the orangutan eats the hyena, and the tiger eats the orangutan. These events are interwoven with discussion of Pi's personal religious philosophy, which embraces Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Pi and the tiger eventually come ashore in Mexico, where the tiger immediately runs off into the jungle. Pi is then interrogated by two Japanese officials, who refuse to believe his seemingly fantastical tale. Pi then retells the story of his survival, replacing the animals with human characters. In the new story the zebra becomes a Chinese sailor, the hyena becomes a French cook, the orangutan becomes Pi's mother, and Pi becomes the tiger. In this version of the story, the cook kills and eats both the sailor and Pi's mother, after which Pi kills and eats the cook. Pi's story is told within a framed narrative in which a young journalist interviews the adult Pi, now in his forties and living in Toronto, about his experiences on the lifeboat. While the centerpiece of The Life of Pi are Pi's adventures on the open sea, the novel also functions as an allegorical tale about the nature of religious faith.
Critics have regarded The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios as a collection of ambitious, experimental fiction by a promising young author. Reviewers have applauded Martel's ability to blend resonant emotional storylines with atypical prose forms. Cary Fagan has described the short-story volume as “notable on the one hand for its warm human voice and on the other for a precocious pleasure in experimenting.” Self has received mixed reviews, with some arguing that Martel's unusual narrative structure and ambiguous protagonist make the novel overly obtuse and unsatisfying for readers. Several commentators have countered these claims and asserted that the novel's treatment of gender, self, and other are both engaging and provocative. The Life of Pi has become an international best-seller, with critics lauding Pi's experiences as engaging, compelling, and powerful, strengthened by Martel's vivid descriptions and lyrical prose style. However, some have commented that Martel's narrative structure is the weakest aspect of the novel. Nathan Whitlock, for example, has commented that, while the portion of the novel that takes place in the lifeboat “might be the most gripping 200 pages in recent Canadian fiction,” the narrative frame of The Life of Pi is ultimately “superfluous.” Many reviewers have discussed Martel's central thematic concern with the nature of religious faith and doubt in The Life of Pi, with some arguing that the novel presents a thought-provoking allegory for the powers of religious faith. Charlotte Innes has described The Life of Pi as “a religious book that makes sense to a nonreligious person.”
SOURCE: Fagan, Cary. Review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, by Yann Martel. Quill & Quire 59, no. 4 (April 1993): 22.
[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Fagan offers praise for Martel's experimental style, narrative voice, and touching stories.]
Yann Martel's first collection of stories [The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories] is notable on the one hand for its warm human voice and on the other for a precocious pleasure in experimenting.
The long title story, which won the 1991 Journey Prize, tells of a young man's friendship for another who is dying of AIDS. The unpretentious telling is like a long spiralling descent into sadness and loss. The series of stories about the fictional Roccamatio family that the two friends tell one another to keep despair at bay is a brilliant and ambitious idea that, if not quite fulfilled, is still effective.
The natural voice comes through again in “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton.” This time the narrator, again a young man, is exploring Washington when he stumbles upon a concert in a decrepit theatre given by the Maryland Vietnam War Veterans' Chamber Ensemble. This fascination with the peculiarly human gives much of the...
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SOURCE: Summers, Merna. “Re-Examining the Facts.” Canadian Forum 72, no. 820 (June 1993): 41-2.
[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Summers compares an earlier version of the title story to a later, revised version which appears in the volume.]
Every few years a new writer comes along who is seen at once to be more than usually exciting, a new talent who may very well redraw our map of reality. It is surprising sometimes how little we need to read before we are able to decide this. Even a single story can do it.
That was the case with Yann Martel, whose second published story won the ＄10,000 Journey Prize two years ago. Reviewing the 1991 Journey Prize Anthology in these pages at that time I wrote:
“The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” is a story of extreme youth and death, and I find it hard to describe just how moving it is. … When I finished reading it, I telephoned a friend, wanting company, but I found that I was incoherent; I simply couldn't tell her what had happened to me. … It is one of the strange things about art that what devastates us also in some way heals us, or at least leads us to where we need to go.
This has become the title story in Martel's new collection of four stories [The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other...
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SOURCE: A. C. Review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, by Yann Martel. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4756 (27 May 1994): 21.
[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, the critic contends that all four stories in the volume are enjoyable and moving.]
Yann Martel, is a Quebecois, educated in English, who writes, on the evidence of these four shortish stories [in The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories]—his first published work—like a more compassionate Paul Auster. He explores the emotional and cultural impulse behind creativity but not as a self-conscious postmodern exercise. He sees it rather as an ordinary human activity, believing that we are all constantly creative in our daily lives.
The title-story is about the death of a young man from AIDS. His best friend sits with him over several months while his condition worsens and the two men tell each other invented stories about the Italian Roccamatio family, each tale prompted by a particular event in a year from this century. The friend, our narrator, doesn't tell us the Roccamatio stories, we only get the named events: “1930—The American Clyde Tombaugh discovers the ninth planet of our solar system, Pluto”, “1941—Marshall Pétain institutes Mother's Day”. It is clear that the untold stories about the Roccamatios are not...
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SOURCE: Hollingshead, Greg. “Citizen ‘I.’” Quill & Quire 62, no. 4 (April 1996): 1, 28.
[In the following review of Self, Hollingshead maintains that Martel's writing demonstrates a beautiful authenticity.]
Yann Martel is probably best known for “The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” which first appeared in the Malahat Review in 1990 and subsequently in the third Journey Prize Anthology and after that as the title story of Martel's 1993 collection from Knopf. “Helsinki Roccamatios” is a good story, but “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto With One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton,” in the September 1992 Malahat and also included in the Knopf collection, is a better story, and one that more clearly says, This is something new. Certainly in Canada. There have been Clark Blaise and Norman Levine, but as I read him, Martel has more in common with Granta contributors such as Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Auster, and Allan Gurganus. These are writers of fiction whose conventions are so muted, or erased, as to be hardly distinguishable from memoir, or travel narrative, or autobiography; fiction where the “I” is present as a fully intelligent, intellectual, even politically conscious entity, a citizen! More like a real, both-paws-on-the-mouse functioning human being than your usual blinkered...
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SOURCE: Hamelin, Christine. “Self and Other.” Canadian Forum 75, no. 854 (November 1996): 43-4.
[In the following review of Self, Hamelin asserts that Martel's narrative combines good storytelling with a genuinely experimental approach, but that the book has a tendency to keep the reader at a distance.]
Self is a Künstlerroman—an artist's novel—whose challenging of conventions generates much vitality. Although it is a fictional autobiography, its unnamed protagonist is, like the author, a writer in his early 30s with diplomat parents. Yet Yann Martel would likely disapprove of any quibbling about genre: Self embraces diversity, shattering all categories.
As a child, the protagonist absorbs the world with openness: “I treated the vacuum cleaner—a distant cousin of the elephant—and the washing machine—a relative of the racoon—with the greatest respect.” Sensitive and intelligent like St-Exupery's Petit Prince, he expounds complex theories about the universe.
Shocked to learn that there are only two genders, and “grief-stricken” that he cannot marry his playmate, he becomes aware of social categories. He must grasp that in French, all things are gendered: trees and wind are masculine, flowers and machines feminine. Throughout the novel, various languages are juxtaposed, reflecting Martel's pluralism....
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SOURCE: Ferraro, Julian. “Male-Female Experiences.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4886 (22 November 1996): 24.
[In the following review, Ferraro observes that the narration in Self rejects conventional notions of plot and character to focus on experience, judging the narrative voice in the book as often strained, pretentious, and dull.]
Self is the fictional autobiography of a young Canadian writer, from the first remembered experience to the age of thirty. In the course of the novel, the self of the title undergoes two changes of sex, from male to female and back again, has various relationships, suffers loss and terrible brutalization, writes, and does a fair amount of travelling. The story unfolds chronologically but in a random, accumulative manner, the absence of structure emphasized by the stagey imbalance between the book's first “chapter” of 329 pages and its second of forty-three words. Just as the central events of the story—the alternations of the sex of the narrator—thwart the reader's expectations of sexual identity and continuity, so the conventions of traditional “masculine” narrative development are challenged by a more circular, open-ended, “feminine” unfolding. The result is a novel which rejects plot and character and focuses instead on experience; on the interaction of an evolving individual consciousness with the random contingencies of existence....
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SOURCE: Whitlock, Nathan. Review of The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Quill & Quire 67, no. 8 (August 2001): 22-3.
[In the following review of The Life of Pi, Whitlock contends that the main body of the novel is exhilarating, gripping, and wonderful, but observes that the narrative framework of the story is superfluous.]
It's impossible to read Yann Martel's audacious, exhilarating, frustrating second novel without wondering what the hell happened. The premise of Life of Pi vibrates with promise. A family living in a small corner of India decides to resettle in Winnipeg in 1977. The family ran a small municipal zoo, and they opt to travel to North America on the same ship that carries a number of the animals that are relocating to zoos in the U.S. The ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific, and the lone human survivor, young Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel, finds himself in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and, most significantly, an adult male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The book's middle section, which describes the 227 days Pi and Richard Parker spend aboard the lifeboat, might be the most gripping 200 pages in recent Canadian fiction. It also stands up against some of Martel's more obvious influences: Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the novels of H. G. Wells, certain stretches of Moby-Dick. The...
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SOURCE: King, Francis. “A Ghastly Crew.” Spectator 288, no. 9067 (18 May 2002): 43.
[In the following review, King describes The Life of Pi as an extraordinary novel of remarkable originality.]
The cover of this novel [Life of Pi] makes it clear how difficult it is to define it. ‘Hints of The Old Man of the Sea, the magic realism of Amado and Marquez and the absurdity of Beckett.’ ‘Like a more compassionate Paul Auster,’ ‘Reminiscent of Italo Calvino.’ Reading of all these similarities between Yann Martel, widely known only in his native Canada, and these world-famous authors, many a bookshop browser may well exclaim, ‘Wow! This is terrific!’ and rush to make a purchase. But the effect on me was the exact opposite. If a writer is so busy being like other writers, does he have any time to be himself? However, I was totally misled. Thankfully, this is a book of sometimes perplexing, often disconcerting but always remarkable originality.
The first of its three sections, some hundred pages in length, is so sunny in tone that the horror of what follows in the last two sections is even more shocking. The story of Pi, narrated by Pi himself, begins in Pondicherry, where his Indian father runs the zoo from which, still a schoolboy, Pi acquires the knowledge of zoology so useful to him in his subsequent ordeal. Despite constant bickering with his elder...
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SOURCE: Lin, Francie. “Floating on Faith.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 June 2002): 7.
[In the following review of The Life of Pi, Lin judges Martel as an original and powerful storyteller, but feels the novel as a whole is uneven in quality.]
Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi is the literary version of a large, friendly dog; hardly has it committed some mild offense than it rebounds with such enthusiasm, impishness and charm that one promptly forgives it. The book concerns the life of Piscine Molitor Patel (self-christened Pi), an Indian boy growing up in Pondicherry in the 1970s. Pi's father is the director of the zoo at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden, and the family lives within the idyllic, hothouse peace of the zoo grounds until at last, in 1977, the political situation in India forces them to sell off their animals and move to Canada. On their way to Toronto, their ship—a Japanese cargo ship carrying, among other things, a Bengal tiger from the Pondicherry zoo—sinks, and all members of the Patel family, excluding Pi, are lost at sea.
A pocket summary of Life of Pi doesn't quite do the book justice, however, because despite its constant episodes of tragedy and suffering, the story is written with a lightness and humor that gives it the quality of a fairy tale. Consider the landscape of Pi's religious life, for instance, which Martel paints with the...
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SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “Guess Who's for Dinner.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5180 (19 July 2002): 25.
[In the following mixed review of The Life of Pi, Kaveney argues that the discussions of religious issues within the novel are unconvincing.]
Sometimes, the best part of a novel is not the elaborate constructions which go to create a plausible fictional world, but the single mad sentence that might be used to pitch the screenplay in Hollywood. In the case of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, the thing that makes the book memorable is not the overly cute, bordering on patronizing, narrative of how his hero Pi came to take his name, adopt many religions and grow up in Pondicherry as the son of a zoo-keeper. It is the story of how he manages to survive for eight-and-a-half months in an open boat in the Pacific in the company of an adult Bengal tiger, keeping both his sanity and all of his organs.
Surrounding this solid core of events is rather more in the way of authenticating narrative than is perhaps desirable. We get Martel back-packing in India; his encounter with Pi Patel's uncle, who tells him of a story that will convince him, and allegedly us, of the existence of God; Martel's meetings with Pi and the chutneys with which Pi delights his palate; Pi's musings on his later career and how the experiences we are still waiting to hear about changed his life. Above all, we get...
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SOURCE: Skidelsky, William. “Novel Thoughts.” New Statesman 131, no. 4598 (29 July 2002): 39.
[In the following review of The Life of Pi, Skidelsky offers high praise for Martel's vivid descriptions and imaginative, compelling narration.]
In an interview a few years ago, Julian Barnes explained why it had taken him eight years to complete his semi-autobiographical first novel, Metroland. For too long, he felt constrained by the facts of his own life as they had happened. Even though he was writing a novel, he still didn't feel entirely free to invent. Only on realising that the truth was his to embellish had the novel finally taken shape. So plausibly rendered were Barnes's inventions, in fact, that several French journalists wrongly assumed that a scene in the novel, in which the protagonist loses his virginity in Paris, was true. …
How refreshing … to read another novel with a nautical theme, but one that avoids the prosaic altogether. Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a riotous imaginative excursion, the account of 16-year-old Pi—the son of a zookeeper—who emigrates from his home in India to Canada in a lifeboat, accompanied by a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Royal Bengal tiger. The reason for this peculiar mode of transport is that the rest of Pi's family—along with their other animals—have drowned in a shipwreck, leaving Pi and his crew to fend...
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SOURCE: Innes, Charlotte. “Robinson Crusoe, Move Over.” Nation 275, no. 6 (19 August 2002): 25-9.
[In the following review, Innes discusses the themes of religious faith and doubt in The Life of Pi.]
If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he'd be charismatic, funny and convert all the nonbelievers. He baits his readers with serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion, but he makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled, that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can't help but be captured by his prose.
That's largely why I took such pleasure in Life of Pi, Martel's wonderful second novel, which playfully reworks the ancient sea voyage, castaway themes of classics like Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Melville's Moby-Dick and (in some of its more fantastical aspects) Homer's The Odyssey, to explore the role of religion in a highly physical world. What's more, it's a religious book that makes sense to a nonreligious person. Although its themes are serious and there are moments of awful graphic violence and bleak despair, it is above all a book about life's absurdities that makes one laugh out loud on almost every page, with its quirky juxtapositions, comparisons, metaphors, Borgesian puzzles, postmodern...
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SOURCE: Martel, Yann, and Sabine Sielke. “‘The Empathetic Imagination’: An Interview with Yann Martel.” Canadian Literature 177 (summer 2003): 12-32.
[In the following interview, conducted in Berlin in 2002, Martel discusses his writing process, the central themes of his fiction, and his literary influences.]
To date, Yann Martel has published three books: The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993), a collection of short stories awarded the Journey Prize; Self (1996) shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award; and Life of Pi (2001), his second novel, which received the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2001 and was nominated for the 2001 Governor General's Award for Fiction. The 2002 Booker Prize for Life of Pi places Martel on par with V. S. Naipaul, Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie, J. M. Coetzee, Kingsley Amis, Keri Hulme, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood.
Martel was born in 1963 in Salamanca, Spain to Canadian parents. His father's postings as a diplomat took the family all over the globe, and Martel grew up in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, France, Ontario and Mexico. He has continued to travel as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India. He studied philosophy at Trent University and held various odd jobs—tree planting, dishwashing, working as a security guard—before he began to write. While he now...
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SOURCE: Houser, Gordon. Review of The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Christian Century 120, no. 3 (8 February 2003): 34-5.
[In the following review, Houser considers the central theme of religious faith in The Life of Pi.]
Canadian writer Yann Martel, winner of the 2002 Booker Prize, sets up his delightful story [The Life of Pi] with a clever “author's note” in which an elderly man in Pondicherry, India, tells the author, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” With little fanfare, he hooks the reader into a postmodern novel, with stories within the story, questions about the veracity of the story or storyteller, and an ending that teaches a lesson about belief.
Narrator and protagonist Piscine Patel, who shortens his name to Pi after being teased about the pronunciation of his first name (rhymes with hissing), grows up near the Pondicherry Zoo, which his father has founded, owned and directed. Pi offers fascinating facts and insights into zoo animals, which become especially pertinent in the story's second part.
In an arresting narrative voice Pi writes, “I was fourteen years old—and a contented Hindu—when I met Jesus Christ on a holiday.” The boy ends up becoming not only a Christian but a Muslim as well, while remaining a Hindu. His three religious instructors meet with his parents to protest such audacity and soon get into an...
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SOURCE: Mishra, Pankaj. “The Man, or the Tiger?” New York Review of Books 50, no. 5 (27 March 2003): 17-18.
[In the following review, Mishra discusses Martel's treatment of the theme of religious faith in The Life of Pi.]
Halfway through Yann Martel's first novel, Self (1996), the young first-person narrator abruptly decides to write a novel that will “address this matter of God.” This sounds a bit whimsical at first. It appears to be part of the same impulse to startle the reader that makes Martel leave some pages blank in Self, or fill several of them in his collection of stories, The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993) with nothing more than the words “blah-blah-blah-blah.”
But this matter of God turns out to be very important to the narrator of Self, who, like Martel himself, was born to French-Canadian diplomat parents in the early Sixties, spent a nomadic childhood in several countries, and is a student of philosophy. He describes falling unhappily in love, discovering masturbation, being bullied at school and bored at college. He has watched a lot of television—“it would be impossible,” he asserts, “to talk of my childhood without mentioning television.” He describes losing his virginity, and backpacking through the exotic East. It sounds like a privileged life—one that he shares with many Canadian men of his class and...
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SOURCE: Palmberg, Elizabeth. “Man Overboard.” Sojourners 32, no. 2 (March-April 2003): 55-6.
[In the following review, Palmberg describes The Life of Pi as “a beautifully crafted novel” about the quest for religious faith.]
One of the many and fruitful exaggerations in Yann Martel's Life of Pi is the assertion, made by a minor character, that Pi's story will “make you believe in God.” With humor, incisiveness, excellent writing, and an uncompromising fidelity to the messy compulsions of the human heart, what the novel really compels is not belief in God but sympathy for those who seek God. For readers invested in the sacred, it is a well-finished novel about unfinished business.
Young Pi Patel, a zookeeper's son growing up in India in the '60s and '70s, has no trouble believing in God. By age 15, he is simultaneously an active Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, unbeknownst to his agnostic parents, and Pi compares the three religions' stories and practices in rich, quirkily reverent prose. Of Christianity, all Pi initially knows is that “it had a reputation for few gods and great violence. But good schools.” Initially, Pi is bemused by Christianity's emphasis on conversion—“religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an ambulance”—and repelled by its “one Story” of crucifixion and atonement, which strike him as “downright weird.”
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SOURCE: Cobb, Gerald T. “Adolescent Mariner.” America 188, no. 13 (14 April 2003): 22.
[In the following review, Cobb views The Life of Pi as an extremely well-written and engrossing novel about religious faith and doubt.]
Yann Martel won Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, for Life of Pi, a book that reinvents the lost-at-sea novel in quite striking terms. Martel himself has been storm-tossed in a controversy about whether he inappropriately employed the premise of a 1981 story by Moacyr Scliar. In an “Author's Note” he credits the Brazilian author for “the spark of life,” but he insists that the novel itself is an original work. And what an ingenious text it is; readers will find Martel's novel gripping and unforgettable.
At a coffeehouse in Pondicherry, India, the author is approached by an elderly man who says, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” He directs the author to Mr. Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi for short) in Toronto, who narrates most of the novel. The grown Pi takes us back to a time when he was 16 years of age (Pi is the 16th letter in the Greek alphabet), growing up in an eccentric and loving family, presided over by his father, who gave up a career as hotelier to become a zookeeper. Pi notes, “My alarm clock during childhood was a pride of lions.”
The boy owes his name to a...
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SOURCE: Boyagoda, Randy. “Faith, Fiction, Flotsam.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life (May 2003): 69-72.
[In the following review, Boyagoda asserts that the central narrative of The Life of Pi is a powerful and enjoyable tale, but that Martel's confused discourse on religion distracts from the novel's strengths.]
Good news came from across the Atlantic late last year. England's most prestigious literary award—the Booker Prize—had been awarded to a work that made the following assertion on its inside cover: “This is a novel of such rare and wondrous storytelling that it may, as one character claims, make you believe in God. Can a reader reasonably ask for anything more?” That sophisticated English literary palettes thought this a reasonable claim—and that Canadian Yann Martel's The Life of Pi has since become a bestseller—may be an indication that growing numbers of people, thirsting for more substance in their lives, are beginning to seek more substance in their reading. Or, alternately, it may be a comment on the brand of popular piety Martel's novel proposes.
The protagonist of The Life of Pi is the precocious son of a pragmatic zookeeper, an Indian boy fascinated by his nation's many faiths but forced by its many political problems to emigrate to Canada along with his family and their animal charges. During the voyage,...
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SOURCE: Smith, Jean. Review of The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 158-59.
[In the following review, Smith is generally critical of The Life of Pi, asserting that Martel offers a confused discourse on religious faith.]
This ultra-linear novel [Life of Pi] begins with, and not after, an author's note from which a word is used to summarize travel in India: “bamboozle”—soon put to use at a train station when a clerk claims, “There is no bamboozlement here.” Publisher's Weekly revealed the bamboozlement of their reviewer by referring to Martel's “captivating honesty about the genesis of his story.” Martel lifted the idea for this novel from one by Moacyr Scliar about a Jewish zookeeper who ends up in a lifeboat with a panther. Now we have Pi, an Indian teenager on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Martel doles out name-play like chunks of hyena for the reader to chew on—comic relief from the cultish deluge of detail and gory animal behavior. Early in the story, during a youthful phase of comparative-theology samplings, Pi is bemused by Christianity's singular story. “Humanity sins but it is God's Son who pays the price?” He tries to imagine his father, a zookeeper without a religious bone in his body, feeding him to the lions to atone for their sins. Martel's brand of verbal alchemy loosens...
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SOURCE: Morra, Linda M. “Re-Visioning Crusoe.” Canadian Literature 177 (summer 2003): 163-64.
[In the following review, Morra compares Martel's The Life of Pi with Daniel DeFoe's eighteenth-century novel Robinson Crusoe.]
The tripartite structure of Life of Pi, Yann Martel's second novel and winner of the 2002 Booker Prize, corresponds to three major periods of the protagonist's life: his adult life in Canada where he meets the narrator and divulges his life-story; his childhood in India followed by a traumatic experience at sea; and his rescue and recovery in Mexico. Initially, some cursory narrative details of the second and third of these parts suggest parallels with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Pi—whose equally resonant birth name, Piscine Molitor, is derived from the “crowning aquatic glory of Paris”—is lost at sea after a shipwreck. Like Crusoe, he survives the cruelties of starvation, isolation, loneliness (if one disqualifies the presence of Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger), and the elements, as he also becomes preoccupied with making a raft and the tools and means upon which his survival depends.
Martel's novel, however, is no simple variant of the Crusoe adventure story. In fact, Life of Pi seems designed to impugn the bourgeois Puritan ideology that underlies Robinson Crusoe. An examination of the protagonists and their...
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Bortolottie, Dan. “On Location.” Books in Canada 22, no. 4 (May 1993): 40-1.
Bortolottie asserts that Martel's stories in The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios are outstanding, and that the volume as a whole is “as successful as it is ambitious.”
Additional coverage of Martel's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 146; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 114; and Literature Resource Center.
(The entire section is 69 words.)