A review of The Illustrated Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Life of Pi
by Yann Martel with illustrations by Tomislav Torjanac
Harcourt 2007
ISBN 978-0-15-101383-8, $29.95, 315 pages

This is not a review of the book. Jack Goodstein has already reviewed the book in March 2003. It is a splendid review and needs no additions. This is solely about illustrations and especially about those of Torjanac.

My family was not bookish, but my parents conscientiously bought three sets of books recommended for children. After these purchases they considered the canon closed. Additional books could be had from the public library. As I grew up in my troublesome way, they were mildly surprised that I wanted to own books, not borrow them.

I mention this trivia since it shows how accustomed we once were to illustrated books. All the books that my parents bought were illustrated, lavishly so. All children grow up with picture books of one kind or another. It is only when we become older (and duller) that we accept books without pictures. “ ‘[A]nd what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures.” ’

Tomislav Torjanac, a free-lance artist from Croatia, was born in 1972. He is thus nine years younger than Martel. He has done book covers and has illustrated the fairytale (The Cat and the Devil) written by James Joyce for the amusement of his unamusing grandson. He works in oils, a medium that is reasonably forgiving and appropriate to a meditative person who wants time to do and to consider what he is doing. He applies paint with more than usual heaviness, prefers bright colors, and is a realist although there is a fitting cartoon-like approach to the Joyce illustrations. Although a realist, he uses odd images to convey his message and these draw on conventions of surrealism. In many of his illustrations there is a remarkable resemblance to N.C. Wyeth although Wyeth’s use of color is more restrained. But there is the same heavy pigment and the busily expressive brush.

There are many illustrations in this new edition of Life of Pi. Most of them are full page but there are almost a dozen spot drawings scattered about the text. All the illustrations take their inspiration from the text but some are more vivid than others. In the need for a reasonable distribution of images, it can happen that some of these needs fall into stretches of text that will be less congenial to the artist. Thus there are three somewhat unexciting full-page illustrations before we reach page 32 with its spectacular image of baboons in bowler hats and stuffy looking birds in neckties and vests. In a book of this size (7 ½ by 10 inches) the illustrations that take off into the stratosphere of the imagination are impressive indeed.

It would be unlikely that you do not have a copy of Life of Pi already. The new edition is such a happy event that you should give your copy away and replace it with this one.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places