Dec 06, 10
people who want a different, philosophical read
Read from November 24 to December 05, 2010 — I own a copy
Every once in a while, I find a story larger than the pages that contain it. Life of Pi is one such novel.
The cover features a boat and a broad expanse of calm ocean underneath great big puffy clouds, beckoning my imagination. The blurb says: "Life of Pi is a real adventure..." The cover's promise didn't let me down. It was one wild larger-than-life adventure. The first stop was India. But before the main story is the Preface by way of the Author's Note which I usually skip but for some reason I decided to read through this time. Good thing I did because the preface turned out to be part of the story and and introduced me to the book's premise: "I have a story that will make you believe in God."
Now that's a tall order, as the author himself mentions in the same passage. My curiosity was piqued.
The introduction switches back and forth between present day Canada and the 70s, during the childhood of the hero Pi Patel in his native India. The present-day chapters are short and give glimpses of his character. The first third of the book focuses on Pi's childhood from how he got his name, how he spent his time in the zoo that belonged to his family, and how he became a practicioner of multiple faiths. Martel was so convincing that he led me to believe that Pi is a real person. If it weren't for Wikipedia, I would have gone on believing that the novel was a true-to-life story.
I enjoyed Part One immensely where Pi Patel talks about growing up in a zoo, mentioning surprising and detailed analyses of animal psychology and behavior that perfectly set up the latter half of the book. I found them as enjoyable and humorous as a lecture on animal behavior by a lively and interesting professor. Later he tells of how he, a born Hindu, converted to Christianity and later to Islam. He practiced all 3 faiths simulataneously, to the chagrin of religious leaders. I enjoyed reading his (humorous but true) Hindu perspective of the Christian and Muslim faiths. His integration of the 3 faiths without conflict mirrors that of my own beliefs, which made me empathize with him.
But the real meat of the book begins when Pi is shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific en route to Canada. Not only did Pi find himself in a lifeboat with a full-grown Bengal tiger, his circumstances became dimmer and dimmer and his ordeals more and more incredible as to stretch believability. However, unbelievable developments were marked by the gritty realities of life as a castaway and I found myself walking the thin line between belief and disbelief. I thought this was a glaring oversight on the author's part until I read the very last chapter and the tables turned.
***Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD***
The last part, while Pi is recuperating on land and being interviewed by a couple of bungling Japanese engineers (they are more like a comedy duo than real men of science) is the clincher.
Suddenly you see the entire story of Pi's survival in a new light. Is the hyena the cook, the zebra the young captain, the orangutan his mother, and Richard Parker (the tiger) Pi himself? Or is Richard Parker God? If the characters in the story become human, therefore humanizing their suffering and necessitating acceptance of human decapitation, cannibalism, murder and other unpleasant things as reality, is it not better to accept the more incredible story of the animals as truth? Do you not want to believe Pi's brave and noble adventure as real?
What is Yann Martel trying to point say here? That religion and belief in God are necessary because the alternative is a bleak and grim reality? And because of this reason, the stories in all religions, though stranger than fiction, are accepted as truth?
Did man created God out of necessity? That we want to believe in God because it is the better story, the better alternative?
You may agree or you may not, or you may have reached a different conclusion from mine, but the story of Pi is one you think about and continues in your mind long after the final page.
Life of Pi can be read as a straightforward story of a castaway's wild adventure in the Pacific, but to read it as such misses the entire point of the book. It is at heart a philosophical and multi-layered novel. Martel fills it with philosophical musings about life, beauty, pain, suffering, faith, and the convergence of science and religion. The musings are at times wondrous and insightful, at times poignant.
The book has a few flaws though, especially at the end. At times the philosophical turns in the conversation sounded unnatural, like stuffing a moral lesson down the reader's throat. The Japanese engineers are so unbelievably incompetent as to seem like cartoon characters (no Japanese professional I know talk and act like that, unless they were gangsters). Though maybe that was the point Martel was trying to make, that they were unprofessional. And also, verifying the veracity of Pi's account would have been easy with 1970s technology. A tiger would at least have left a mark on the lifeboat if it had been living there for so long.
The writing style has a slightly archaic feel to it that may not appeal to some readers, though I didn't find it to be a problem.
I am glad to have read this book. It's different from any book I've read so far.
P.S. I looked at some other reviews after I wrote this and saw a lot of points I missed that others picked up. I realize now that though the three parts of the book seemed disjointed, they actually wrap up very well. I love Eva's review here at Goodreads (from Nov. 17 2007) which sums up Life of Pi nicely:
There is no use in trying to provide a brief synopsis because once you finish the book you might decide that this was not, indeed, what the book was about at all. There is no use because, depending on your philosophical bent, the book will mean something very different to your best friend than it will to you.