As the old adage goes: even the blackest cloud has a silver lining. And so it was that, as I lay in bed, unable to sleep, eat or leave the flat due to illness, I finally got around to finishing Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Life Of Pi.
Having first come across the novel in 2005 whilst on holiday in Gran Canaria, I remember waiting patiently for my turn to read the book as it was passed from one family member to another. However, the holiday soon came to an end, and so too did my unreconciled interest in reading it.
With Ang Lee’s highly anticipated film adaptation due for release this December, I found myself with a renewed interest in the book. Unable to find the paper copy from seven years before, I downloaded a digital copy to read during the two months I was due to spend in Russia in the run up to Christmas.
Unfortunately, when my downloads died with my Kindle on the journey over, I again became distracted as I settled into my new role and acclimatised to this this foreign land. It wasn’t until my third week in Syktyvkar, when things eventually quietened down, that I resolved to buy another copy — the third overall — from iTunes.
For those of you who haven’t read it, the story follows a teenage boy from India as he samples various religions from his family’s Pondicherry zoo. When socio-political unrest propels the Patel family to Canada, Pi becomes stranded at sea with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.
By virtue of his family’s vocation, one of the key themes of the novel is a justification of keeping animals captive. Pi argues strongly that menageries are not inherently bad: that, when done right, a zoo can provide a home for any animal that is as comfortable as their preferred natural habitat while also being substantially more convenient and risk-free.
Indeed, I too have witnessed such zoos. The likes of Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Köln Zoo in Germany and Berger Zoo in Holland have each made very good impressions on me during formative years spent fascinated with life, whether wild or captive. In fact, it wasn’t until this week that my personal experience (and high opinion) of such parks was finally brought into question.
While the novel’s completion was inevitably followed by the usual bitter-sweet sense of having lost a friend and simultaneously freed yourself up to meet another, I was also struck by another emotion, too: curiosity. I had been living within a close proximity to a tiger of my own for a little over four weeks now, and it was really about time I went and said hello.
Located just across the road from my flat, in a small stretch of greenery (or should that be whitery?) between ул. карла маркса and ул. куратова, is a small travelling zoo. On a nightly basis, almost since the morning after my arrival, I have been awoken at six o’clock in the morning by the roars of what was revealed to be a tiger. Even from the outside, it didn’t look promising.
Weak from illness and cut off from the World Wide Web by some sort of Christmas gremlin, I ventured over the street to take a closer look, determined to finally put faces to the noises I had been hearing intermittently over the last few weeks. Paying the 200 rouble admission fee, I nigh-on lifted the frozen curtain out of the way and entered zoo itself. I wanted to leave immediately.
In five small enclosures arranged around a rusted children’s ride lived a random sampling of the most sorry-looking animals I had ever seen. With the banners out front advertising 40 (marked down from 50) species, I counted three black bears, two tigers, two wolves, a lynx, a leopard, a puma, a porcupine, a camel, a donkey, a pony (which you could apparently ride for an additional fee), an eagle, a few chickens and a fox, all in various stages of desperation.
One of only five customers (alongside a mother and child, on old woman who looked as disturbed as the animals and another who was busy filming the sleeping bears on her phone), I did a few circuits of the arena before leaving, overcome by both grief and the weather. It was -9°C that morning, and it was set to get even colder.
Try as I might, all I could see was black.