Would you believe that a 16-year-old Indian boy could survive for 227 days adrift and alone in a lifeboat in the Pacific, accompanied by a spotted hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, a female orang-utan and a 450lb Royal Bengal Tiger? "What is your problem with the hard to believe?" asks "Pi" Patel, the shipwrecked zookeeper's son, in Yann Martel's Life of Pi.
I also grew up with a Bengal tiger. Or bits of one: skin draped over the sofa, snarling head mounted halfway up the stairs. It wasn't standard décor in the Surrey suburbs, and when news filtered round primary school, nine-year-old Melita decided it stretched her credulity too far. "Liar," the playground gang-leader insisted, raising an after-school verification committee and marching them to my front door. I understood the sweet tang of triumph as my inquisitors were forced to stare truth in the jaws. As Pi says, "Tigers don't contradict reality."
Martel's fantastical yarn is prefaced with a bamboozling note on how he came to write his third book. He left his home in Quebec, travelling to India to work on a novel which sputtered out of steam. A chance encounter with a bright-eyed old man led him to this implausible but "true" story. Believe in miracles, he whispers, while distracting us with a diet of delicious zoological facts.
Neither zoos nor religion are fashionable concepts ("certain illusions about freedom plague them both"), but each contain invaluable messages. Throughout Pi's charming childhood in Pondicherry Zoo, the inquisitive boy has been blessed with mentors "who came into my dark head and lit a match" – including his reasoning father, his atheist biology teacher, a Catholic priest, and a Muslim baker. He practises simultaneously as a Christian, Muslim and Hindu, equally drawn to the stories and philosophy of each. There is no one truth.
When the cargo-ship transporting the family's animals to America sinks, it is Pi's knowledge of lion-taming, territorial pissing and flight distances which proves most useful. After the hyena, orang-utan and zebra have all been despatched in horrific style, Pi has to devise a strategy to deal with the tiger. Rocking the lifeboat to keep him seasick, Pi manages to assert himself as the alpha-male.
After seven months of escaping the claws of tiger and the maw of despair, Life of Pi does bob a little in the doldrums; but this is compelling storytelling, and Martel is always ready to reel in the reader with a well-turned phrase or tasty aside. Then the increasingly hallucinogenic fable spins on its head and offers yet another version of events. Isn't the tiger Pi's alter-ego: the wild-animal he's forced to become? When modern life, like the cargo-ship, lets us down, we have nothing to cling to but stories.
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