Sunday, 11 March 2012

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

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 practice 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. Traveling 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 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 center 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.

SPOILER ALERT - only read this entry if you have already read or do not plan on reading the novel.

First of all, who doesn't like books about pie?

Oh. It's not that kind of pie.

Well, I can still dig 3.14.

Not that either, huh?

A book about tigers and castaways and religion? Eh, we'll give it a shot. 

Overall, I'm happy for reading it, seeing how the story had me caught up from start to finish... or, at least, semi finish, since I wasn't too fond of the ending. But I'm a fan of tales about people overcoming insurmountable feats in order to survive, and I just happen to love animals too, so of course I found it interesting.

I was even OK with the fact that the whole story is a metaphor about life, faith and growing up. In fact, the reason I started blogging about the books I've read in 2012 was so that I could try and focus on the 'morals of the stories' - try and get the bigger picture, etc, etc.

But I found that the ending of this book - the explanation of the metaphor - was too rushed. It got spit out at you in the last twelve pages, and made the rest of the tale feel cheapened somewhat. "You mean there WAS no tiger?!" is what I cried out at the end. "Why can't there have been a tiger AND a moral? The two aren't mutually exclusive, you know!"

The whole point of "this is a story that will make you believe in god" goes right out the window without the tiger. Without Richard Parker, it's just another story of survival - certainly dramatic, but not as entertaining.

This is why I gave it a rating of 3.5 - which is not far off from the average of 3.8 given by the nice people at If it weren't for those last few pages, and the bursting of my bubble, it probably would have gotten a solid five.

To those of you who ignored my alert before the break, I'm sorry, but go ahead and read it anyway... you may now be aware of the metaphor being just that, but at least you can still enjoy the unraveling. Just... when asked which version you prefer, be sure you include the tiger.

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