Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, was an interesting take on the classic ‘castaway’ tale. It provides the usual trials of hunger, thirst, and desperation; it also adds in tigers. The book involved religious discussions across multiple faiths, the ins and outs of running a zoo, Indian culture, and the journey of the mind through solitude and survival. Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel is stranded on a life raft with a tiger for 227 days, adrift in the Pacific. He must learn to survive and use the knowledge and reason he has, as well as his faith, to overcome the obstacles set before him. Overall, it was an enjoyable book, and ultimately thought provoking.
Life of Pi began in an incongruous way for a shipwreck tale. We learn of the boy, Piscine, and his life. He lives with his family, his father running a zoo in India. The impact of animals on his life is always apparent. He is a Hindu, but then discovers Christianity, followed by Islam. Deciding to take all three religions into his heart, Pi startles his family and the practitioners of each faith.
Eventually, the zoo proves to not be prosperous and Pi’s family decides to head to Canada. They sell most of the animals, boarding a ship with some that are destined for the North American continent and setting sail across the pacific. After a brief, uneventful journey, the ship mysteriously sinks, leaving Pi stranded in a lifeboat with a peculiar menagerie. His fellow survivors include a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger. Obviously, these creatures do not all exist on the boat harmoniously and through a variety of circumstances, only Pi and the tiger – Richard Parker – are left.
Pi and Richard Parker learn to coexist, with Pi using his knowledge of animal intellect, instinct, and zookeeping to make he and the tiger separate territories aboard the boat. The two live together through prosperity, times of famine, thirst, blindness, meeting a random Frenchman sailor that was also stranded, and coming upon a carnivorous island filled with meerkats.
In the end, all is saved and Pi relates his story to the narrator.
Life of Pi was a book made wonderful by captivating surprises and elegant writing. The descriptions are fresh and unusual. Thirst and hunger have been described so many ways, but these descriptions made it all the more real – and very nearly like poetry. Pi is a very logical, scientific individual who also happens to believe in several different faiths. He compares and combines the elements of each, finding harmony in a place where few have dared to do so before.
The thoughts on religion at the beginning of the story are very interesting. They equate Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in ways that had never occurred to me and also describe them from the eyes of a non-Christian. Living in America, I’m used to seeing religion through ‘Christian’ eyes, even though I’m not particularly religious, myself. At any rate, Pi shows an enormous aptitude for harmony and balance in life, as well as understanding for nature and existence. Pi’s way of relating the seemingly un-relatable was unmatched.
“And so, when she first heard of Hare Krishnas, she didn’t hear right. She heard “Hairless Christians”, and that is what they were to her for many years. When I corrected her, I told her that in fact she was not so wrong; that Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.”
The book rather abruptly turns from theological debates to shipwrecks, which threw me off a bit. It was very symbolic of how a tragedy like that can suddenly strike in the midst of normal life, so it worked for the story. The activities that Pi and Richard Parker went through were captivating to read about because of the science and reason that was involved. Understanding animals was what saved Pi and he relates his knowledge to the reader. Part of the book seemed purely fancy and the delusions of a lonely, salt-ridden mind – the carnivorous island filled with meerkats, for example. They too were described with this reasoning sense of wonder, though. The island was approached less like fancy and more like a botanical discovery, observed and tested over the course of a few days.
The book’s ending was disconcerting. After all the issues that Pi went through to finally wash ashore, no one believes his story. He is questioned by two people trying to get to the bottom of why the boat sank and after much logical debate, he tells them a story of what ‘really’ happened. This story is particularly devoid of tigers, hyenas, and carnivorous islands. It sounds like it could be just as true, if not more. It is the type of story that the two men are expecting. Pi delivers it without any flinching, so we don’t really know if he was lying about the tiger story or not. He does not mention, during his journey, if he doubts the validity of what he finds or not. The only doubt in his mind that he expresses involves mirages.
The issue here is that the reader WANTS to believe in Richard Parker. The story is much more harrowing and less depressing if a boy and a tiger manage to face off against the elements together and survive for 200-some days adrift in the Pacific. Logic and reason are the main driving forces in the book; logic and reason dictate that it’s much more likely Richard Parker, the hyena, the zebra, and the island are all symbolic references to problems that Pi faced while starving and half-mad. Pi addresses this himself when he is interviewed about what happened.
Pi Patel: “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question [how the ship sank] either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the other story without animals?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question…”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
The human imagination will transform as situation to help make it livable. I think this explains a lot of religious experiences and miracles that people have seen. The brain tries its best to cope with what is happening and if it cannot, it tries to bend the situation to help the coping process. It is easy to see how a solitary, book-worm type individual that is captivated by animals and the magic of religion transforms his journey into something out of a book. He makes the characters in his tale animals, because he finds them easier to understand than humans. The beauty is in the imagination, though.
I want to believe in Richard Parker and the relationship therein. I want to believe that crazy tales like this can in fact happen and that reason and logic don’t always describe every aspect of the situation. If the mind makes it real, we experience it as real. Isn’t one of the biggest existential questions about if we can really trust our senses to experience the world? Were I shipwrecked, I can only hope that Richard Parker, in some form, would show up to assist me.
I recommend this book to fellow readers.