Life of Pi is a masterful and utterly original novel that is at once the story of a young castaway who faces immeasurable hardships on the high seas, and a meditation on religion, faith, art and life that is as witty as it is profound. Using the threads of all of our best stories, Yann Martel has woven a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe.
Growing up in Pondicherry, India, Piscine Molitor Patel — known as Pi — has a rich life. Bookish by nature, young Pi acquires a broad knowledge of not only the great religious texts but of all literature, and has a great curiosity about how the world works. His family runs the local zoo, and he spends many of his days among goats, hippos, swans, and bears, developing his own theories about the nature of animals and how human nature conforms to it. Pi’s family life is quite happy, even though his brother picks on him and his parents aren’t quite sure how to accept his decision to simultaneously embrace and practise three religions — Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.
But despite the lush and nurturing variety of Pi’s world, there are broad political changes afoot in India, and when Pi is sixteen his parents decide that the family needs to escape to a better life. Choosing to move to Canada, they close the zoo, pack their belongings, and board a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum. Travelling with them are many of their animals, bound for zoos in North America. However, they have only just begun their journey when the ship sinks, taking the dreams of the Patel family down with it. Only Pi survives, cast adrift in a lifeboat with the unlikeliest of travelling companions: a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Thus begins Pi Patel’s epic, 227-day voyage across the Pacific, and the powerful story of faith and survival at the heart of Life of Pi. Worn and scared, oscillating between hope and despair, Pi is witness to the playing out of the food chain, quite aware of his new position within it. When only the tiger is left of the seafaring menagerie, Pi realizes that his survival depends on his ability to assert his own will, and sets upon a grand and ordered scheme to keep from being Richard Parker’s next meal.
As the days pass, Pi fights both boredom and terror by throwing himself into the practical details of surviving on the open sea — catching fish, collecting rain water, protecting himself from the sun — all the while ensuring that the tiger is also kept alive, and knows that Pi is the key to his survival. The castaways face gruelling pain in their brushes with starvation, illness, and the storms that lash the small boat, but there is also the solace of beauty: the rainbow hues of a dorado’s death-throes, the peaceful eye of a looming whale, the shimmering blues of the ocean’s swells. Hope is fleeting, however, and despite adapting his religious practices to his daily routine, Pi feels the constant, pressing weight of despair. It is during the most hopeless and gruelling days of his voyage that Pi whittles to the core of his beliefs, casts off his own assumptions, and faces his underlying terrors head-on.
As Yann Martel has said in one interview, “The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.” And for Martel, the greatest imaginative overlay is religion. “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material — any greater pattern of meaning.” In Life of Pi, the question of stories, and of what stories to believe, is front and centre from the beginning, when the author tells us how he was led to Pi Patel and to this novel: in an Indian coffee house, a gentleman told him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And as this novel comes to its brilliant conclusion, Pi shows us that the story with the imaginative overlay is also the story that contains the most truth.
From the Trade Paperback edition.“*
Let it be known that I love tigers. In fact, tigers are my favorite animals. I have stuffed toy collections of them, and up until high school, I slept with them all around me in the belief that they will scare away whatever evil being that plans to visit me in the night. To be honest, that was the thing that drew me to this book, above all. It all began when I was 11, and my class had a field trip to Subic. My friends and I dared to take a picture with a tiger cub named Eo (the size of which was too big for a cub, in my opinion), and I was the one who fed it. Its paws were heavy and resting on my arms, and I fell in love. Lookie, a picture!
This book, however, is not just about tigers. Tigers are only part of the equation, and trust me, this book is beyond the sum of its parts. Pi, contrary to what I originally thought as the tiger’s name, was actually the interesting nickname of an Indian boy who happened to be shipwrecked with a tiger and some other animals to begin with. It was a ridiculous and at the same time incredible situation. The book is separated into three parts, and the tell-tale tiger on several book covers does not get much exposure (literally and figuratively) until the second part. You would have to endure Pi’s musings on his name, religion, and zookeeping, among others. Thankfully, they weren’t too dragging for me so it was okay, but then I was also reading Les Miserables alongside it, whose meanderings are even longer than those of this book (but that is for another entry). Try to bear with it if you aren’t fond of draggy bits, because after that, things get more interesting.
The whole reading experience could be likened to a sojourn into the ocean. A fun thing to do, theoretically, but no matter how much you prepare for it, you’re not really ready. You get used to it, and you calm down. Life goes on, but then you catch sight of land, and you try to go there, and you feel safe. A few feet from shore, however, a huge wave comes up from behind you and lashes down. Couple that with the vertigo of walking on a steady surface, and you get the unpredictable nature of this book. I mean, I was calmly reading it and feeling enlightened and pretty much basking in the glory of so much wisdom when suddenly, something happens and you see the book in a whole new light. Everything changes. Drastically. You are then left to choose what to believe. You can choose to read it like the atheists. Pi believed that “like [him], they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap.” Or you can read it like the agnostics, who will find the logical explanation and miss the better story. After all this, in the end, you will realize that Life of Pi’s not just about a journey with a tiger. It says as much about you as it does with Pi Patel, and possibly even more, if you think about it. It is a very unique experience, and more than you can possibly expect for less than 400 pages.
The thing is, better story or not, you cannot deny each version’s individual beauty and wisdom, parallels though they may be. That is what I love about this book. On the one hand, you have a story that is fantastical and memorable, heartwarming and brought on by faith. On the other, you have a story rife with symbolism and the brutal honesty of reality. You don’t lose anything whether you believe in one story or the other. It’s a win-win situation.
This is the first book I finished and my first 5-star rating for this year. I’m very excited to see the movie version. Before I do so, I have to say this: Read this book. Deciding whether to let go and believe, or listening to what makes actual sense, will probably prove to be a challenge (like it was for me), but it will be worth it. You will know how you see the world and you will understand why people need faith. And that, in itself, is a beautiful and rewarding experience.
In a nutshell…
Author: Yann Martel
Original Language: English
Genre: Literary, Philosophy, Cultural