Friday, July 01, 2005

Instant Classic Sunk

Life of Pi, By Yann Martel, Read by Jeff Woodman with Alexander Marshall, HighBridge Company, 2002

Yann Martel’s winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Life of Pi, is an excellent, moving, thought-provoking novel. It is here completely and egregiously mangled by narrator Jeff Woodman, selected from all possible readers because someone apparently thought he could provide a passable Indian accent. Woodman, who was so youthful and convincing as an autistic teen in his reading of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and so awful in his bizarre dialect selection in The Rule of Four, here provides a horrible faux Indian accent that constantly asserts itself and peeks out at every possible second. He comes off several stages under Hank Azaria’s rendition of Apu from The Simpsons. If HighBridge audio wanted a decent reader for a story told by an Indian character, perhaps a real Patel might have been a wiser move than a Woodman mimicking one. Alexander Marshall assists the reading in small, between-chapter extra-narrative descriptions of the novel’s protagonist, Piscine Molitor Patel, as done by a journalist.

This mugging of the book is a damn shame, because as I’ve said, Martel’s novel teems with ideas and philosophical reflection, yet I’ve no choice but to lead off with that because the audio version is itself so mind-boggingly bad. I suspect even Burt Reynold’s somber Moby Dick reading isn’t half as bad a pairing as this version.

The book’s first half is an extended meditation on zoos and human relations to animals, defending the existence of such places as both a comfort to the animals and perhaps, at some future date, the only place some species will be likely to be found. When Piscine, who goes by Pi, first suggested the idea, I was skeptical, yet by thorough argument, he partially won me over to his thesis. Pi’s father runs a private zoo in Pondicherry, India and he grows up among the hippos, sheep, tigers, monkeys and other animals. His father takes Pi and his brother one day on a tour to demonstrate the dangerous nature of every animal there, but at the same time, he hangs a mirror behind a curtain at the front gate of the zoo. Above the curtain is a sign promising a view of the zoo’s most dangerous animal. Along the way, Pi treats us to a most delightful rumination on the animals, such as when he describes how an orangutan picks “through your hair for tick snacks” and “its wheeze of disappointment at what an empty pantry your head is.”

This first half is coupled with another thread that will illuminate later aspects of the novel’s second half, that other thread being Pi’s developing religious consciousness. In the multicultural masala that is India, Pi comes to worship as a Christian, a Hindu, and a Muslim, finding in each religion something to love and revere. When Pi first discovers Christianity, his description of it is likely to surprise a number of Christian readers; “It had a reputation for few gods and great violence.” Next he comes to embrace Islam describing it as no gods and even greater violence. He manages to find a way to encapsulate both religions inside his Hinduism, at one point leaving a priest after he tells Pi that he is a Christian in his heart in order to go “to offer thanks to Lord Krishna for having put Jesus of Nazareth” on earth.

This amusing religious melange, something Pi does rather secretively, as his family are secular and modern Indians, has its climax in a meeting Pi and his parents have on the Goubert Salai seaside esplanade with all three of Pi’s ministers. The Patel family is accosted simultaneously by Pi’s priest, imam, and Hindu pandit, and all three of them claim him for their own finally getting into a little argument. The argument is most enchanting because of the shifting alliances of the three religious men, the Hindu and the Muslim ganging up on the Christian, then the Christian and the Muslim each tag-teaming the Hindu, then the Hindu and the Christian taking the Muslim to task.

“‘What it comes down to,’ the priest put out with cool rage, ‘is whether Piscine wants real religion — or myths from a cartoon strip.’
‘Gods — or idols,’ intoned the imam gravely.
‘Our gods — or colonial gods,’ hissed the pandit.”

Pi eventually makes his choice, with his parents’ grudging support, and continues to worship in all three ways, after all, how can you deny a teenager whose rebellion is to do “what we’re all trying to do — love God.”

In between chapters are little reports of a kind that struck me instantly as if they were social worker or doctor’s reports. We only find out very late in the book that they are a journalist or writer’s notes or article portions describing Pi. Slowly, ever so slowly, a portrait is revealed of the coming meeting of Pi’s life with some looming tragedy, the basic gist of which you’d be familiar with if you only just saw the novel’s cover.

In the middle of the Atlantic, that tragedy catches him in the night. Pi’s father has decided to close the zoo and move the family to Canada. This requires shipping the animals to North America for their various dispersal at other zoos around the continent. The ship his family sails on sinks and he is alone in a lifeboat, alone save for a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger. Don’t think of the lifeboat in that small raft sense, but in a much bigger sense, with a largish compartment under one of the seats (large enough to hold the tiger completely out of sight for much of the time on the boat) stocked with life jackets, oars, and other survival gear.

Of course, the ineluctable survival of the fittest runs the ship, paring down the inhabitants until it is only Pi and the tiger. What follows is partly a battle of wills and partly a symbiotic relationship between the last two survivors. Unfortunately while he manages deeply philosophical ruminations, Martel isn’t particularly good at writing visual-spatially. His description of what the boat was like, how there was room for each of the animals and Pi, the little raft Pi made for himself from lifejackets, all of this is rather hard to follow and would seem like the kind of thing that would be necessary to grasp. In such cases, I tend to simply give up trying to picture things too clearly in my mind and allow the action to happen as if on a bare stage.

Part of what makes a pleasing irony of the story is that Pi finds that the presence of the tiger, who is named Richard Parker, is what keeps him alive. Without the tiger, the despair of his condition and his sudden orphaning and lack of family would have overwhelmed him. It is the threat of the tiger that allows him to live, that forces him to survive. And survive he does (as you would expect in first person narratives), despite running into a series of even more bizarre and impossible scenarios, such as during a period of malnourished blindness encountering a second life raft with another blind starvation victim who tries to kill him for food only to die at the tiger’s claws. Or the creepily detailed carnivorous island of algae populated by meerkats.

When Pi later washes ashore in Mexico and is taken to a hospital, he is interviewed by Japanese investigators for the shipping line on which his family traveled and died. Through the course of the interview, these investigators are as incredulous about many of the rather unlikely things that happen in the course of the book as the reader might be by this point. This is one of the better, subtler authorial tricks when you have to present some hard to buy facts, have a character in the book itself question their believability. By owning up to their unlikelihood, the author is telling you, as if in an aside, “yeah, I know. Crazy, huh?” For good measure, this scene allows Woodman to demonstrate rapid-fire back and forth bad accents, though to be fair, his Japanese is considerably better than his Indian.

It will be a long time before I read this book again, opting on that day to favor the print version over the audio. Woodman has ruined himself and possibly many other audiobooks, putting himself in the categories of such audio disasters as Blackstone Audio’s Frederick Davidson who should be flogged severely. Luckily at this stage, it doesn’t appear that Woodman’s read many other books I’d be interested in save Foer’s debut novel. My wife and I have often debated whether listening could count as reading and one of her arguments was always that a reader interpreted the book for you in ways you might not. In this instance, I will agree. Martel’s book deserves much more than this.

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