Books : Life of Pi

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Winner of the Man-Booker prize for 2002.

 Life of Pi is a book that can be difficult to pigeonhole: it could be a modern day fable, a fantasy with shades of magic realism or just a simple tale of great adventure. But one thing it surely is : a great read.

The protagonist of the book is a young man named after a French swimming pool – Piscine (pissin’) Molitor Patel, son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry. In the first 16 years of his life, Piscine manages to shorten his name to Pi, starts practicing Hinduism and Christianity and Islam, and picks up a few nuggets of animal psychology from his father (including “You can never befriend a tiger”) – all of which stand him in good stead as his family packs their bags (and a few animals) and leaves for Canada.

Enroute to Canada, a shipwreck leaves Pi stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, an injured zebra and an adult Bengal tiger called Richard Parker for company. Soon, all the other animals either eat each other or manage to get eaten by Richard Parker, leaving only Pi and him remaining. The rest of the book is a fascinating account of how the two manage to survive over 200 days in the Pacific, with a flimsy tarpaulin used to demarcate their territories on the lifeboat.

We know Pi is going to survive the ordeal, but it is a tribute to Martel’s narrative that he manages to keep the readers curiosity piqued almost constantly. Every thing that happens on the ocean rain, no rain, day, night all bring a different kind of adventure with them : a new set of dangers for Pi, and new ways in which he must overcome them.

When he finally reaches the coast of Mexico with Richard Parker, after traversing through an Utopian island – probably Martel’s nod to magic realism – Parker runs away to leave Pi to do the explaining to a bunch of incredulous Japanese assessors. And then Martel throws us a curveball – a retelling of the tale that will leave you stunned (and perhaps a little perplexed). So what is the truth?

The conversations of the author with the present day Pi (that are peppered throughout the book), and the initial encounter with an old man who points Martel to the story add a lot to the aura of believability that the book creates. The only thing that detracts from the book is the occasional preachy tone that it adopts. And the Hindu-Christian-Muslim parts at the start were downright corny. And… no, I shouldn’t be nitpicking. This is a wonderful book – one of the very best I read last year.

Books : Laboring through the Baroque Cycle

I like Neal Stephenson a lot. His Snowcrash and Diamond Age were my introduction to Cyberpunk, and the follow up to these books – Cryptonomicon turned out to be a bestseller and possibly his best book to date. I loved the numerous digressions , the insider geek-jokes, and the irreverent tone of the book. Whole pages (and sometimes chapters) were dedicated to things had at best a tangential relationship to the plot. Like a whole chapter filled with a bad short story written by one of the characters. Or (really) Perl source code for a cryptographic algorithm he describes in the book.

And so I looked forward to the Baroque Cycle, a 3000-page trilogy about the Baroque Age. Quicksilver, Confusion and The System of the World – one book every six months, starting October 2003. Stephenson’s fictional creations cohabiting the book with Hooke, Wilkins, Newton and Leibnitz. This was going to be so good.

Not really. The Baroque cycle is a bit of a letdown.

Sure, there were some good segments. Jack Shaftoe was cool. So was Eliza. The board game that Eliza organizes for French noblemen to explain financial concepts was hilarious. The Royal Society sounded like a fun place to work in: Hooke seemed like a cool dude, and Newton a grumpy old bastard. A big chunk of the second book was devoted to India, and there were some intersting nuggets that I didn’t know. I’m not sure if this is true, but apparently, the women of Malabar (Kerala today) were so sexually promiscuous that most of the time kids didn’t know who their dads were. And thus started the tradition of children taking the mother’s last name. But I digress: In between the good parts, there was so much pointless fluff that any half-decent editor would have gotten rid off. And try as hard as I did, I couldn’t find a plot. Sometimes the book felt like I was reading a smart schoolboy’s scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings from the 17th century. The whole is so much less than the sum of its parts.

Note to Neal: Digressions are cool and all that, but digressions don’t make a book. Not a 3000-page book. And you forgot the plot!