I have just read another Booker prize-winner, which together with Possession makes two; so I only have to read another 33 and I shall have read the complete set; I shall then be able to regard myself as an expert on literary fiction; either that or I shall have become completely deranged, I’m not sure which.
Actually, now that I come to look at the list of prize-winners, I realise that I have read one other Booker winner. But it was such a second-rate piece of work, and induced such an amazing sense of tedium, that I am not even going to mention its name. Instead I will talk about Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
I read Life of Pi not because it is famous but because it was recommended to me by a dentist, a lady without an ounce of intellectual pretension in her body. She said it was ‘a perfectly delightful story’, so I decided that it must at least be worth a look.
Well, now I've read it, and I suppose my friend is right. The book is very much worth a look. But what I found difficult – indeed impossible – while reading it, was to separate my reaction as a reader from my knowledge that the thing was a prize-winner; and that it was therefore something special.
Just in case you don’t know, I think I ought to begin by pointing out that Life of Pi won the Booker in more than usually bizarre circumstances. Yann Martel had written a couple of other books, which were published in the UK by Faber. But the early books had not sold well and Faber had no faith that this one would do any better, so they turned it down.
Pi was also rejected by at least five other big publishers, and was eventually taken on by the small firm of Canongate.
Now, consider this: if the eventual publisher, Canongate, had not taken the book, it is likely that the manuscript would have remained for ever in the author’s filing cabinet. Furthermore, if the book had been accepted by one of the bigger firms, it would not even have been entered for the Booker Prize in the first place, because publishers are only allowed to make two nominations and the big firms have to enter their most famous authors; if they don’t, the famous authors are likely to go elsewhere.
The Life of Pi saga thus provides a beautifully clear demonstration of something that I have written about at length in my recent essay, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, namely the random way in which success is achieved (or not) in publishing. (Click here for a free download of my essay in PDF format.) Pi is a book which was turned down for publication by numerous ‘good judges’. It was entered for the Booker Prize by a small firm which had no stronger candidates. And it so happened that the particular set of judges who were reading in 2002 happened to like it best. Or a majority of them did. Such are the rolls of the dice.
Do you begin to see how difficult it is for a reader who knows all that to judge the book, in 2005, in isolation? It’s impossible. You can’t put all that background out of your mind. As you read you are inevitably saying to yourself, If I had read this when it was just a pile of paper, would I (a) have wanted to publish it, and (b) would I have ever dreamed that it would go on to be a huge success?
The answer to both these questions is probably No. If I pretend for a moment that when Pi was being shopped around I was the chief editor at that well known bastion of literature, Clapham & Irons, I have to say that I would probably have sent the ms back to its agent with a polite note. Interesting, I would have said, but not for me. I certainly would not have seen it as likely to sell 1.8 million copies, which it is reported to have done.
So now let’s have a look at the book itself.
It begins with an Author’s Note. This is, I think, part of the fiction. But some bits of it may be true. Yann Martel tells us that he went to India to write a novel, a book which didn’t work out, but he had a bit of money left so he went to the town of Pondicherry, and there he found an elderly man who told him the rudiments of the story which Martel later made into Life of Pi. The main character in this story was a sixteen-year-old boy whose name is Pi. Later, in Toronto, the author managed to locate Pi, now a grown man, and talked to him at great length. The novel tells the story of Pi’s life, before and after a shipwreck.
Now it’s the shipwreck bit that had put me off, until the lady dentist told me not to be so silly. What I had heard was that the book was about a boy who was shipwrecked and found himself in a boat with a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal Tiger. And that really didn’t sound like a novel I wanted to read. It reminded me too much of Edward Lear: ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat’; all that sort of thing.
Anyway, after the author’s note we get into the story proper, which is now told by Pi himself in the first person.
To begin with, the writing is quite pleasing. But already, by page 11, I made a note that my attention was beginning to wander. A bit. For my taste there was too much family history (what some people call backstory) being passed on in lumps -- not easily digestible. But I persevered. I think I would have done so anyway, even if I’d been reading it as a pile of paper.
Part One of the book, which is really all background, lasts until page 97. And then, with the words ‘The ship sank’, we begin to get somewhere. Part Two, which lasts until page 289, tells us what Pi got up to in the lifeboat. Or what he says he got up to; together with the hyena and the rest of them. The tiger’s name, by the way, is Richard Parker. If you want to know why, read the book.
Part Three is a little coda, in which Pi is debriefed about his experiences by a couple of Japanese chappies who are anxious to find out what made the ship sink.
Once things got going, I had no trouble in remaining interested in this book. I don’t know that I would second my friend the dentist in saying that it is ‘perfectly delightful’, but it’s certainly interesting, and thoroughly well written. It apparently took Martel four years to complete, and I don’t know where he was at the time, but it reads as if it was written by someone who was not in a hurry. It reads as if the author was sitting in some Indian village, a long way from a telephone or a satellite dish, and quietly got on with his work when he wasn’t having a zizz. This is not, on the whole, a bad impression for a writer to make on a reader.
Life of Pi, as we have seen, might all too easily have ended its days in the author’s filing cabinet, without ever having been set in type. But once it was published, and particularly after it won the Booker, it proved to be a book which generated genuine word of mouth. The Booker alone will sell you perhaps 100,000 copies. But to get above that you have to enjoy the benefit of unforced enthusiasm. And that Life of Pi was able to do. Would that we were all smart enough to emulate that.
Should you wish to know more, you can find an informative interview with the author here. Of course, if you care about whether Richard Parker, the tiger, is actually a Christ figure, and all of that literary symbol and metaphor crap, you will have to do your own research, because I’m not remotely interested. And neither, I can assure you, is the dentist.