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Amazing her amusing him


Kole Omotoso

Can you tell a story about zoos without mentioning animals? It is possible. Just mention one animal, say a lion. And it would be the story about the Prophet and the Lion at the University of Ibadan years ago. Imagine if a prophet with his Bible could contain the power of the lion with the word STOP! His church would be full the following Sunday. But it did not work out that way. Half his body was found in front of the lion the following day. With a note from the lion explaining the small matter of invasion of his privacy.

History of a zoo? I had never thought of one until I came across LIFE OF Pi by Yann Martel, published by Canongate in 2002. I don’t understand how it comes to be called a novel except that by the end of this piece I should know and you would know.

Part of the surprise of this novel is the religious aspect. Pi is born Hindi. He becomes a Christian. He becomes a Muslim. Both the Christian priest and the Muslim Imam testify to his steadfastness as a Christian and as a Muslim. He is baptized as Christian. He is put through the Muslim ritual limited as it is. When questioned as to why he had to be all these instead of just being one, he wants to know who says he cannot be all three at the same time. During the terrible storm in which the ship is lost and Pi loses his parents and his brother, he prays: “Vishnu preserve me, Allah protect me, Christ save me, I can’t bear it.”


Pi’s father owned a zoo in Pondicherry in India. At some point in their lives they decide to sell the zoo and moved to Canada. The process and the procedure is tedious and as complicated for each individual animal as it is for each member of the family. Once the paper work was completed they got into the ship TSIMTSUM. “Her officers were Japanese, her crew Taiwanese and she was large and impressive.”

Let me put together what I now think I know and can conclude about zoos. Zoos are animal cities set up by humans for animals since animals wont set them up themselves. To move a zoo and disperse her population around the world is like doing the same thing to a human settlement. This is not an easy task.

From the cover of the book: “After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen-year old boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg) a female orangu-utan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger.”
Another quote from the cover of the book is: “LIFE OF PI is black magic and reality, a subtle and sophisticated fable about belief in its many guises.”

The novel is divided into three parts. Part one is entitled Toronto and Pondicherry with a black and white illustration of ship. Part two, which is the longest part of the novel, is entitled Part two The Pacific Ocean with a black and white illustration of an Asiatic tiger. The shortest part Part three is Benito Juarez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico with a sketch of a lifeboat with two oars, some coconut trees and a piece of land.

Of the, three parts of the book, the part two is the most tedious and the most difficult to read. It is the most densely written with the belief that so much of interest has been written to persuade the reader to go on reading. Whoever has read so far and decides to go on must have his or her reason for reading on.

The most technically difficult part of the novel is this part two. Does one need to take a special course in oceanography in order to first understand a novel and second enjoy it? I don’t think so. But it is my belief that whoever would appreciate this novel and understand why it won the Booker Prize would have to understand what lifeboats are made of.


After months of hopelessness, Pi was rescued. After months of euphoria that hope exists Pi was rescued. Months when he tried to fish, months when he believed he would not survive he was rescued.

“I was overwhelmed by the generosity of those who rescued me. Poor people gave me clothes and food. Doctors and nurses cared for me as if I were a premature baby. Mexican and Canadian officials opened all doors for me so that from the beach in Mexico to the University of Toronto, there was only one long, easy corridor I had to walk down. To all these people I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks.”

The most important part of the story at the end is that many people did not believe the story. It is truly an unbelievable story. Perhaps that is why it is such a successful typical BOOKER book. But nobody, or critic has come forward to give us the unusual characteristics of a Booker book. May be someone is already working on it. Over the years, books like Midnight Children, Famished Road and others of their kind have provided the world of literature with these incredible stories. And the world does not seem to be tired of them. They keep producing them and the readers keep reading them.

Most of these stories have combined reality with magic. There was a time when it could be defined as third world magic realism. Luckily that term did not stick. What name will it carry into the world of literature? The contributions of writers of European tradition has made it a firmly realistic novelistic tradition. Yet, the contributions from the plantations of the Caribbean ensure that the magical narratives will long be part of this BOOKER book. There is need for new readers for the old titles in these books. With the help of these new readers, it will be possible to finally define.


In this article:
Kole OmotosoYann Martel
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