Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes I think a good author simply comes up with an incredible situation and then writes to see how the characters respond to it, what they do, how they eventually get out of it. In this case the situation is a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with a tiger aboard. Pi is the only human survivor of a sunken ship, which was carrying his family and a small menagerie to a new life in Canada. After the accident he finds himself on the ship with the tiger, a hyena, a zebra, and an orangutan– and very soon with only a tiger.

So much you can learn from the back cover. What the back cover (at least the back cover of my edition) doesn’t mention is the twist at the end that casts the entire story into a new, more sinister light. It’s a twist worthy of a Gene Wolfe novel, the hook that makes you flip back through the pages, wondering how much of what you read you really understood, whether you are even now interpreting the signs correctly. Without that twist, it would have been an interesting and compelling novel. It would have been beautiful even. But it would not have been haunting. You would not wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the novel, uneasily considering the stories Pi told.

The novel is broken up into three main sections. The first talks about Pi’s life growing up in India. This portion of the story is told as though the author is interviewing Pi years after his ordeal, though at this point we’re still not sure what that ordeal is. Only that it is a story that will “make us believe in God.” Pi certainly believes in God. His enthusiasm for God leads him to actively pursue and practice three faiths, that of Christianity, Islam, and his native Hinduism, much to his parents’ perplexity. We also learn a lot about zoo-keeping here, as this is where Pi grows up, the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry. Martel gives us lots to think about regarding our relationship with animals and the subtle, complex, and nuanced universe that is a zoo.

The second and longer portion of the work is Pi’s story about what happened in the lifeboat, how him and the tiger (named Richard Parker) survived their several-month ordeal. We already know the story is going to have a happy ending. (Remember, Martel is telling this as though getting it all from Pi himself, now married and with children and living in Toronto.) Our universe telescope’s down to Pi’s lifeboat, the day-to-day details of surviving at sea and living in close proximity to a Bengal tiger who is always hungry. This is where all the background regarding animals and zoo-keeping comes in handy. The book fits together well in that respect.

It doesn’t fit together as well regarding all the background we got about Pi’s religious faith in the first section of the story. The zoo-keeping stuff blended with survival at sea with the tiger. I kept waiting for Pi’s faith to likewise come into play in some deep existential way during his time on the ocean, but it never happened. Pi was simply there, with God, surviving. No epiphanies or visitations. No deep meaning welling up from his ecumenical perspectives on Vishnu, Jesus, and Muhammed. That’s fine, I just felt the first portion of the book was setting us up for something along those lines.

The third and by far shortest portion of the book was Pi’s interview with two Japanese officials who came to find out what he could tell them regarding the shipping accident. This is where the book twisted, where it showed a hidden depth I had not expected. Up until this point it was an enjoyable, imaginative novel with great description, a clever situation, and splashes of lovely surreality (because the Pacific, after all, is a huge and fairly unknown place to be drifting across). But the details of the story Pi tells are too fantastic, too unbelievable to these polite Japanese officials. Pi says some things about faith, about what we chose to believe.

And then he tells another story.

Perhaps this is the point of the book, the crux of the story that “will make us believe in God.” Because– and I don’t want to give too much away here– there are multiple ways to understand what actually happened to Pi while he was at sea. Pi asks the Japanese officials which story they think is better, which one they choose to believe. Pi knows what happened though, while his hearers have to make a decision. I’m not sure the analogy is perfect here, but in some sense this is us with life. We know what happened. We see (at least pieces of) the complex system of cause and effect we’re snarled within. Crazy, random, maddening, and sickening things happen. But we have to decide what story to believe– a story of chaos and meaninglessness or a story of significance.

This is a story that will make you believe in God, he said. I’m not sure it did. Maybe Martel is just telling us an excellent story about a boy and a tiger (and an ocean and a cannibalistic castaway and a carnivorous island and a tiny zoo in India). But maybe he’s also telling us a story about how life works and how we choose which stories to believe.

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