With over 1250 reviews already registered for LIFE OF PI, I first thought there could be nothing more to say about this marvelous novel. But after scanning the most recent 100 reviews, I began to wonder what book many of those reviewers had read. Had I relied on 98 of those reviews, I would have expected a far different book than the one I actually read.
Let's begin with what LIFE OF PI isn't. It's not a Man against Nature survival story. It's not a story about zoos or wild animals or animal husbandry. It's not ROBINSON CRUSOE or SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON. It's not a literary version of CASTAWAY or OPEN WATER, and it's not a "triumph against all odds, happily ever after" rescue story. To classify it as such would be like classifying THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA as a story about a poor fisherman or MOBY DICK as a sea story. Or THE TRIAL as a courtroom drama, THE PLAGUE as a story of an epidemic, HEART OF DARKNESS as a story about slavery, or ANIMAL FARM as an animal adventure.
Martel's story line is already well-known: a fifteen-year-old boy, the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India survives a shipwreck several days out of Manila. He is the lone human survivor, but his lifeboat is occupied by a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, an injured zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan. In relatively short order and true Darwinian fashion, their numbers are reduced to just two: the boy Piscene Molitor Patel, and the tiger, Richard Parker. By dint of his zoo exposure and a fortuitously positioned tarpaulin, Pi (as he is called) manages to establish his own territory on the lifeboat and even gains alpha dominance over Richard Parker. At various points in their 227-day ordeal, Pi and the tiger miss being rescued by an oil tanker, meet up with another shipwreck survivor, and discover an extraordinary algae island before finally reaching safety.
When Pi retells the entire story to two representatives of the Japanese Ministry of Transport searching for the cause of the sinking, they express deep disbelief, so he offers them a second, far more mundane but believable story that parallels the first one. They can choose to believe the more fantastical first one despite its seeming irrationality (Pi is, after all, an irrational number) and its necessary leap of faith, or they can accept the second, far more rational version, more heavily grounded in our everyday experiences.
LIFE OF PI is an allegory, the symbolic expression of a deeper meaning through a tale acted out by humans, animals, and in this case, even plant life. Yann Martel has crafted a magnificently unlikely tale involving zoology and botany, religious experience, and ocean survival skills to explore the meaning of stories in our lives, whether they are inspired by religion to explain the purpose of life or generated by our own psyches as a way to understand and interpret the world around us.
Martel employs a number of religious themes and devices to introduce religion as one of mankind's primary filters for interpreting reality. Pi's active adoption and participation in Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity establish him as a character able to relate his story through the lens of the world's three major religions. Prayer and religious references abound, and his adventures bring to mind such Old Testament scenes as the Garden of Eden, Daniel and the lion's den, the trials of Job, and even Jonah and the whale. Accepting Pi's survival story as true, without supporting evidence, is little different than accepting New Testament stories about Jesus. They are matters of faith, not empiricism.
In the end, however, LIFE OF PI takes a broader view. All people are storytellers, casting their experiences and even their own life events in story form. Martel's message is that all humans use stories to process the reality around them, from the stories that comprise history to those that explain the actions and behaviors of our families and friends. We could never process the chaotic stream of events from everyday life without stories to help us categorize and compartmentalize them. Yet we all choose our own stories to accomplish this - some based on faith and religion, some based on empiricism and science. The approach we choose dictates our interpretation of the world around us.
LIFE OF PI bears a faint resemblance to the movie BIG FISH, also a story about storytelling and how we understand and rationalize our own lives through tales both mundane and tall. Martel's book is structured as a story within a story within a story, planned and executed in precisely 100 chapters as a mathematical counterpoint to the endlessly irrational and nonrepeating value of pi. The book is alternately harrowing and amusing, deeply rational and scientific but wildly mystical and improbable. It is also hugely entertaining and highly readable, as fluid as the water in which Pi floats. Anyone who enjoys literature as a vehicle for contemplating the human condition should find in LIFE OF PI a delicious treat.
on August 7, 2005
I passed this book up perhaps dozens of times in the bookstore, before finally relenting. From the description on the back of the dust jacket, it just did not seem like a story that would interest me. Plus, several of the review snippets on the book -- essentially praising the author for making a book with such a spare story into a great novel -- seemed to me a little like damning with faint praise.
As it turns out, I was half right. I didn't like the story very much. Well, actually, I very much liked the first hundred pages or so, which took place on land and described our protaganist; a young Indian son-of-a-zookeepper. But I found the story thereafter that took place at sea to be a little too slowly paced for my tastes. And some of the gore -- particularly the detailed discussion of the butchering of various sea fish and animals -- was too repetitive and, well, gross.
But, it turns out, the story of a boy on a boat with a tiger is not really what the novel is "about" at all. Instead, it's a novel that uses its backstory to ask a straightforward question: Do we need stories and fables to believe in God? (SPOILERS follow.)
At the end of this novel, we are confronted squarely with enduring questions about the limits of faith. How can we believe in God when a wonderful, kind, vegan, pious boy endures tragedy for no good reason? How can that boy continue to believe in God when he witnesses, first hand, how human nature emerges in its cruelest form as 4 castaways on a life boat essentially turn into animals in less than 24 hours. How can he believe in God when he watches helplessly as his mother is brutally murdered for no discernable reason? And how can any of us believe in God when extraordinary measures turn this gentle, pious boy into a murderer himself? Can we find God, this novel asks, solely in the "dry, yeastless, factuality" of this everyday world, where God seemingly refuses to intevene?
The answer, the boy decides, is that we cannot. We need the stories, the fables. So the boy spins a yarn that we are told, "will make you believe in God" -- a phrase that seems filled with hope and faith in the book's first chapter but drenched in irony in its final chapter.
It is interesting to read the other Amazon reviews -- many of which are simply outstanding. But it appears that many of you take away from this novel a sense of spirituality and view it as a faith-reaffirming book. I must respectfully disagree. In fact, it is a book that is very pessimistic about faith and about the legends that various faiths use to help themselves believe. Not that it is entirely bleak about faith; as Pi tells us, to ignore or doubt the fables and doubt the existence of God, "is to miss the better story," and to live a life that, at least in Pi's view, is hardly worth living. (And Pi practices what he preaches -- actively observing multiple faiths even years after his horrible experience.) Still, the final message -- that "the story with the animals is better," and "so it goes with God" is, in some senses, heartbreaking, and hardly faith-affirming.
Still, a novel that makes you think about such things is difficult to criticize merely because its conclusions might be somewhat pessimistic. And if you're afflicted with the type of mind that likes to continue to mull books over after you've put them down, this one will not disappoint.
Or, maybe it's just a book about a boy and a tiger on a boat, in which case it's probably not worth reading. (Insert smiley face.)
on June 29, 2005
That Pi is the nickname of the main character and narrator of this tale is only the first little tidbit to digest in this delicious smorgasbord of a novel. Pi the number, you see, goes on to infinity, so Pi the person, it can be reasonably assumed, does the same. But there's so much more than this, it's almost impossible to get your mind around it.
As everybody already knows, the plot has to do with Pi, a sixteen-year old Indian boy who practices three religions, and who gets shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean on the way to Canada with his emigrant family. He is the sole human survivor, but unfortunately--or fortunately as it turns out--not the sole survivor. On the lifeboat with him are a 450 pound tiger and several other animals, and within a day or so, a 450 pound tiger. The bulk of the novel has to do with the story of his survival, not only from the catastrophic wreck, but from the almost surreal horror of being confined in a ridiculously small space with one of the most dangerous animals on the earth.
For the rich thematic nature of this novel come into bloom, this aspect of the story must be entirely believable, and I'm here to tell you, it is. This is no Tom Robbins nonsense in which all living things get along simply because they are too cool for reality, this is nail-bitingly realistic, and nothing is left out. In fact, if you're in this for the pure adventure of it, you can't do much better.
Young Pi has a lot of things to think about. First, there is the fact that his family has suddenly disappeared forever. Then, there is the food and water problem. Finally, there is, well, the tiger problem. Should he try to kill it? How? With a knife, a rope, a flare gun? What if he only wounds it? Can he make it go away? Can he somehow live with it? He manages, in a clever way, but just barely. His relationship with the tiger can be described as no better than uneasy even on the best days.
His survival at sea, from the food and water he must meticulously procure, to the sharks he must avoid, to the storms he must suffer through, to the eruption of boils on his body, and many, many other tribulations, are carefully and realistically portrayed. As are his emotions, which range from terror, loneliness, sadness, despair . . . and hope. The experience he relates is nothing less than fascinating, and there are a multitude of surprising--and entirely credible--revelations. He endures this for 272 days before he finally washes up in Mexico.
But here is where it really gets interesting. See, nobody believes the business about the tiger, which unceremoniously took off the moment it and Pi hit the beach. Oh, they believe he's a sixteen-year old Indian boy who somehow manages to be standing on the coast of Mexico after being shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Manila and Midway--they have to believe that, he's standing there--but that there is a 450 pound tiger at loose and undetected in the jungles of Mexico? No way! Can't be!
So Pi tells them another story. One that is more believable. Far more believable, in that it involves men only, and even better, men acting brutally towards one another. But neither story can be proved, one way or the other.
What we have, therefore, is a treatise on the nature of truth, and on a far deeper level, the nature of faith. Don't go back and look for clues in order to figure out which of Pi's stories are true: you won't be able to. The point is this: it is a matter of choice. One can choose to believe either one. Just as one can choose to have faith. Or choose not to.
Pretty heavy-duty, no doubt about it, but there is a whole lot of other great stuff, too, and you'll find yourself twirling the possibilities around in your brain for days. By its end you realize that just about everything in the novel is symbolic of something, seemingly, although there are not always clear answers. The tiger, for example, might be God, but I'm not absolutely sure about that. Arguably, he saved Pi, in that he kept his mind occupied and off the horrible contemplation of his fate. Also, there is the nature of it, which is beautiful, undeniable, and under the circumstances, all-powerful. Of course, it must also be fed, perhaps, or sacrificed to. If not, both man and beast will die.
The boat, I think, orange and white, represents Hinduism. Pi could not have survived the elements without the boat, but over time it becomes weather-beaten, and he knows he can't live on it forever. The island, green, represents Islam. Pi finds great succor on the island and is brought back to life by it, but discovers that unless he conforms to its laws strictly, it will kill him. Christianity, I think, is the blue ocean, unfathomably deep, mysterious, and teeming with life, but loaded with deadly, dangerous creatures. His survival depended on all three, a point which is reinforced by Pi's life pre- and post-disaster, in that he worshipped God as God is manifested in all three religions.
You could philosophize about this type of thing for days, I suppose, and have a lot of fun doing so, but the main thing to remember is that above all else, it's a great yarn, told by a warm, engaging, and clever narrator. That's the main thing. But in all respects, this is first class literature.
on September 23, 2003
This work of fiction has two distinct aspects, either of which has the potential to be relished for its own sake. On the one hand, it's a grim adventure story about an adolescent shipwreck survivor. On the other, it's a fable with overt religious overtones and a Message.
And what a premise for a story! A young boy trapped on a lifeboat with the oddest assort of castaways in literary history: a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and a Bengal tiger. The result is an enjoyable, brisk, nearly believable, often gruesome romp, in straightforward (but never pedestrian) writing style equal to the best "young adult" fiction available today. The first section introduces Pi living in India with his zoo-keeping family. Part horror story, part fable, the major portion of the book recounts his (mis)adventures at sea. It's the final pages that throw readers for a loop, as the story steers from magic realism to a post-modern finale in which Martel tries to wrap up his point.
While the plot will remind readers of "The Old Man and the Sea," "Lord of the Flies," "Robinson Crusoe," and even "Gulliver's Travels," the thematic underpinnings of the book, unfortunately, flirts with the "feel good," New-Age banality of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Some readers might find the ideas worth contemplating, but I suspect an equal number will realize that Martel's message disintegrates after serious reflection. These faults deserve discussion, but I will avoid disclosing any of the plot's surprises.
Some of the book's metaphysical elements rise to the challenge, especially when Martel approaches the subject with a sense of humor. But the basic argument is rather trite, and the author stumbles when he offers an alternative explanation for Pi's experiences--a story that is cynical and stark and a lot more realistic--and then challenges the reader to choose: the "better story, the story with animals" or "the story that will confirm what you already know." Martel's Big Message: Faith in God is belief in "the better story"; atheism is picking the story you already know, and agnosticism is refusing to choose.
The most obvious flaw in this line of reasoning is that Martel has set up a false dichotomy: believers can choose from hundreds of "possible" stories for any narrative--not just two. The second problem is sheer chutzpah: The "god" of this story is the Author, not God, and its world is entirely the Author's Creation. There's no way around the fact that Martel, in effect, compares belief in fiction to belief in God. Furthermore, if we believed in every story because it was better or prettier, many of us would still "believe" in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, or Zeus and Hera, or Alice and the Mad Hatter. A third, related issue: since the author invents the story, he is able to manipulate the reader. Another author/god writing this book could easily turn the tables, ending the book with Pi committed to an asylum, unable to care for himself, and uselessly babbling his story to his caretakers. Which is the "better story" then?
And that leads to the novel's biggest failing: Martel never convinces the reader why it's important to choose at all. The book is less a brief for belief in God than a denunciation of agnosticism. In press interviews, for example, Martel exposes his own prejudices, referring to agnostics as "doubters" or "fence-sitters," and that he has greater respect for atheists. Pi argues similarly in the novel, "To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation." Yet this metaphor makes no sense: one doesn't always have to be on the move or even commit to a single mode of transportation. If life presents hundreds of possible stories, why must we choose one (or even a few) to the exclusion of all others? Or, as an agnostic might ask, why not remain open-minded rather than close-minded?
Nevertheless, the reader who finds Martel's philosophical ramblings unappealing or incoherent or unsatisfying or shallow (or all of the above) can still sit back and take pleasure in the story. For all its theological misfires, "Life of Pi" might yet join a tradition of works (like, say, "The Chronicles of Narnia" or "The Fountainhead") that stand on their own for many readers, regardless of what they might think of their underlying themes.
on October 7, 2007
If you haven't read the Life of Pi you are in for a treat. Originally published in 2002, this is a new illustrated edition and it is simply wonderful.
A teenaged boy is shipwrecked and set adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with some unusual companions; a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a fierce Bengal tiger. They drift together for a long time as this savage and philosophical tale plays out.
The addition of 40 illustrations by Tomaslav Torjanac is an incredible enhancement to the book. His pictures are brilliant and colorful. Some seem almost photographic.
Re-reading the book was an absolute pleasure. I caught things I missed the first time through.
on May 25, 2002
This is the best new novel I have read in years. It is completely refreshing. In this novel there isn't a hint of cynicism or pessimism. It is horrific and frightening, and yet optimistic in the most moving way. The only part where the sometimes inflated ego that Mr Martel has exhibited in previous books shows through (and I write this with a smile on my face) is when he suggests that the story "will make you believe in God." Don't worry, it will not corrupt you into organized religion, be it Hinduism, Islam or Christianity, nor does it even try. Yet, perhaps the key to the fascinating affect that this beautiful and horrifying work has is this rare (even unique!) underlying spirituality. It is a book of symbols, which you at first believe are quite simple, slowly developing (like an avalanche) into complexity. And yet when the story is over it becomes clear in a shocking instant that, all along, the symbols were even more simple and meaningful (in the most realistic sense) than you could have ever imagined. I was mesmerized by this book and could not put it down.
on November 25, 2002
It took me three weeks to finally find this book. It flew off the shelves like hot cakes once it won the Man Booker Prize in England. However, once I got my hands on a copy, I read it from cover to cover. From the very beginning, Martel is able to enticingly draw the reader into a world that most of us in the western world have never seen before. His travels in India are apparent in the detail he uses when describing Pi's hometown of Pondicherry, and his talent for developing the main characters is done very well in my opinion, delivering enough detail to make it extremely authentic, but not overpowering the reader at the same time. Martel's style is simultaneously powerful, confident, and unassuming.
The "meaty" part of the book is used to describe Pi's incredible (and harrowing) journey across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger. Don't let the description fool you. This book isn't sweet and cuddly; as is apparent by Martel's description of Richard Parker and his various companions on the lifeboat. This journey is one of life and death.
I've never read anything quite like "Life of Pi", apart from Kipling. This is on the same level in it's fableistic qualities. Instantly a classic in my opinion, it won't ever be outdated. This is the type of book that could be read a hundred years from now and still be great. 5 STARS!!!
on June 28, 2002
If you read often or browse the bookstores you find that there seem to be a limited number of plot designs and a finite number of characters. The names and cities change but the stories all sort of blend together. There are some authors who are more skilled at word flow than others and seem more comfortable with their style but a similarity exists that makes reading even the best volumes mundane.
Then you get the joyful opportunity to discover a book like Martel's Life of Pi. This is a story like no other. There is a plot unique, thought provoking and inspiring; a main character who presents a persona so important and so basic to life and an author who writes with such ease and comfort that you think he is speaking with you in your living room over coffee.
Main character Piscine [Pi] is stranded in a life raft with a tiger after a ship wreck. Don't let the seeming trviality of this brief plot review dissuade you. Only an author with the imagination and genius of Martel could make this work. It works so very well. Read this book with an open mind as Martel details his suffering, his thoughts, his feelings, his emotional drain and most importantly his relationship with the tiger. Try hard to understand what Mr. Martel is really talking about and dare to think about how you would react to the situations presented after 200 days at sea in a 26 foot raft.
For every 20 books I read I pray one will be like this. It is one of the few books I have ever read that I think I could read again.
on May 30, 2002
I read between 50 and 80 books a year and it is the rare novel that does not disappoint me on some level. This book never let me down, I was never bored and I never felt the author cheated or left loose ends. The language was simple and lyrical but full of symbolism and symmetry. I loved the main character's honesty and optimism and his simple will to survive. Above all I loved the choice of an alternate ending, neither story is a perfect fit leaving the reader the choice to make up their own mind. I laughed, I cried and I'm recommending it to everyone I know.
on May 15, 2003
The winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize is an extraordinary book. A boy, with a name that sounds like an obscenity, is the sole (soul) survivor of a shipwreck - along with a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan, and a Royal Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker.
However, it takes about a hundred pages before Piscine Molitor Patel (he was named after a swimming pool), is cast adrift in the swells of the Pacific Ocean, after Mrs Gandhi has invaded his family's comfort zone and forced them to flee to Canada. Before that happens, we learn a bit more about Pi's extraordinary childhood. He's lucky in that he has a mother who reads widely, and Pi is allowed to dip into her library, with only the ruder bits of literature being censored. In short, Pi would appear to be on a perpetual quest, always discovering new things. In comparison with his brother Ravi, who is the captain of the local cricket team, Pi is a bit of a loner, but a series of serendipities ensure his survival. The Patel family is secular, but Pi finds glory in religious practice(s). An encounter on the esplanade with three wise men leads to the discovery that Pi is a devout Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. As his brother Ravi observes, if Pi converted to the Jewish faith, then he would need only find three other religions to have a day of rest for every day of the week in perpetuity. Along the way, he finds two Mr Kumars, one a devout Muslim, and the other a devout atheist science teacher. Pi only reserves his scorn for Agnostics, the eternal doubters. It would appear important that Pi has such an abundance of faith. What else could get you through living with a ferocious tiger called Richard Parker on a small lifeboat?
Mamaji says that Pi's story could make you believe in God. There's no doubting the power of Yann Martel's novel, but I cannot say that it gets me to believe in God. No, the importance of Life of Pi for me was the insistence on choosing a "better story". I'm sure this, more than anything else, must have helped sway the Man Booker judges to plump for this book. Even the Man Booker webpage accidentally plumped for this book when it erroneously announced Yann Martel as the winner the week before. It's the way a story is told, true or not, that earns its immortality. True, there are some improbable moments in Life of Pi, where our faith is tested, but Yann Martel is an excellent fisher of readers: we are on his hook, we may try to fight back with all our might, but in the end, all of us will have to admit that it is he who is in control throughout.
At first sight, we seem to learn more about psychology rather than religious faith or God in this book. We see very little of Pi being sustained by religious faith - we are told about it, but we do not see it actually feeding him, except maybe in that bizarre anti-Eden of algae. No, this book seems more like an impassioned plea for the values of fiction itself. As the author of Life of Pi himself writes, "If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams". This sounds like a call to arms, and it's a call that I take up willingly (even if the narrator, like Holly in Rider Haggard's Gothic Romance She, would appear to be a fictional device, he does have an authentic tone).
But if you do happen to dive beneath the surface, you will find that there are quite a few religious concepts alluded to in the course of this novel. "Tsimtsum", for instance, is a term derived from Jewish mysticism, related to God's withdrawal or sinking from the universe... There are references to the various flood myths (like Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, this novel delves in Jewish mysticism from the Kabbalistic Zohar branch). I believe that the concept of Tsimtsum also plays a major role in how Yann Martel has structured Life of Pi. There is something very circular in telling Pi's story in exactly 100 chapters. Also, when Pi uses pi to work out the circumference of that strange anti-Eden he lands on, you can't help but acknowledge that there is some great deal of thought in Yann Martel's naming of Pi, since pi is synonymous with circles. When God creates his vacuum, one can only imagine a circular shaped hole. Galaxies certainly resolve around black holes. Markandeya is also mentioned - he, like Pi, was also 16 when he was saved by his faith. When Pi is on the phone ordering Pizza, he says that his name is 'I am who I am' (in the same manner that God answers Moses' question about his identity).
Yann Martel has set this novel in a series of real locations that add a great deal of authenticity to this far out tale. I have created an in-depth web page that goes `behind the scenes' of the Life of Pi, explaining all the references. Interested readers can contact me for details of this webpage - go armed to your readers group armed with all the facts! You can ever hear how `prusten' sounds like, or just how unlucky it is to travel with someone called `Richard Parker' (there was even a `Clifford Richard Parker' on the Titanic!)