Life of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Life of Pi is a highly acclaimed novel, and one is tempted to call it overrated. After finishing it in a week, I can honestly say it's not. It's extraordinary.
What is Life of Pi about? Well, at its heart, it's about a young boy named Piscene (nicknamed Pi) who survives a shipwreck and ends up in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The bizarre nature of the idea would be enough to support the novel, but Martel brilliantly expands on the central theme to create a book of staggering depth and poignancy.
The first portion of the novel is about Piscene’s life in India, where he grows up tending the zoo run by his family. That section alone, I found extremely entertaining and I think I could have easily have read a whole novel about. The idea of a young boy growing up surrounded by exotic animals as familiar to him as dogs and cats, and all the different details about life behind-the-scenes at a zoo, made for great reading.
The zoo is both the cause and source of the wild animals that Pi ends up lost at sea with. The ship transporting his family and their animals to Canada sinks, and Pi ends up in the aforementioned lifeboat. At first, he’s lost with a hyena, orangutan, zebra, and the Bengal tiger, but the laws of predator and prey whittles the group down to just Pi and the tiger. At first, it seems there’s no way Pi could possibly survive, until he comes up with an amazing idea: he will tame the tiger. Using his knowledge of animals, Pi successfully manages to achieve an uneasy truce with the tiger, and the two endure seven months at sea together.
The novel is unlike anything I've ever read before. Much of the story is disjointed; seemingly random anecdotes or chapters on different topics like how Pi kept his mind occupied or all the times he encountered birds. Yet it all comes together to form a powerful journey. It would be impossible to tell a straight narrative about seven months floating in the middle of the ocean - there's only so much he can do. In a way, the randomness of the story captures the aimless desperation of Pi, who loses all sense of time and place at sea.
At times, the details and descriptions are staggeringly real. The details about India, zoo life, and life lost at sea feel like the words of someone who's lived it. Several times, I found myself looking at the author's bio just to remind myself he wasn't a teenage Indian zookeeper castaway. I find it amazing that Martel was able to put us into the mind and life of someone so different.
The tiger serves as a brilliant conflict; the lifeboat is Pi's only means of survival, but it contains an animal so dangerous that it's certain death. Pi wants to run from the tiger to keep from being attacked, but has to stay near or on the lifeboat to stay out of the sea. I found the constant balance between trying to survive on the lifeboat while negotiating the unpredictable animal endlessly fascinating.
Much of the conversation about the novel is about the spiritual aspect. Pi is a deeply religious young man, someone who is a devoted and active member to three major forms of religion; Hindu, Muslim, and Christianity. There's a funny scene where three leaders from each religion all try to convert him to their side, but Pi insists on remaining with all of them. During his journey, Pi frequently makes reference to and calls out to various God and Allah. He views the world around him as metaphors of religious faith, and prays for deliverance often. Frankly, I found the religious aspect not very compelling or necessary to the plot, but it made for some nice metaphors.
I should also say that the novel is beautifully written with wonderful description and asides. He plays with expectation and language like a musician. Martel spends pages describing the ocean, but the entire shipwreck is covered in a couple of pages.
I should also say the last chapter blew me away. I don’t want to give anything away, except to say that it made me question the nature of fiction and our belief in the fantastic.
I haven't seen the movie, but would like to. I don't expect it to capture the transient and philosophical side of the novel, but the visual of a tiger on a lifeboat is one I wished I could see. As for the novel Life of Pi, it’s definitely recommended.
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