2,403 of 2,491 people found the following review helpful
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.
536 of 593 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 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.)
181 of 204 people found the following review helpful
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.
566 of 666 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 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.
97 of 114 people found the following review helpful
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.
68 of 79 people found the following review helpful
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.
59 of 69 people found the following review helpful
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!!!
152 of 184 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 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.
110 of 132 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 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.
155 of 188 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2006
It doesn't matter whether what you tell people is truth or fiction, because there's no such thing as truth, no real difference between fantasy and reality, so you might as well go with the more interesting story. That's "Life of Pi" in a nutshell. Sorry to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it yet.
Remember that season of the TV series "Dallas" that turned out to be just a dream? That's kind of how you feel after you've invested hours of your time reading page after page of a quite engrossing survival narrative, only to find out that it was all something the survivor made up.
Or was it? Ah, there's the twist that we're supposed to find so clever. But the officials from the ship company who tell Pi they don't believe his story are such hopelessly weak strawmen that the author pretty much forces you to accept the "better story." Pi, and, by extension, Martel, have no patience for the "dry, yeastless factuality" that the ship officials want, you see. Never mind whether it's closer to the truth -- it's just too boring, and we need colorful stories to make our lives richer. Besides, Pi and Martel say, as soon as something leaves your mouth, it's no longer reality -- it's only your interpretation of reality. So why bother grasping for the truth? You prefer the Creation story to the Big Bang? Then go with the Creation story, even if it defies logic and scientific discovery.
That's all well and good. Everyone likes a good story. But there's a time and a place for them, and the ship officials didn't need a story -- they needed to know what happened to their ship. To that end, Pi's entire tale is irrelevant anyway. And that, in turn, makes you wonder what the whole point of the book was. Other than, maybe, to laud the power of storytelling in a really hamfisted manner. Or to advocate for taking refuge in fantastical fiction when reality is too harsh. Or to champion shallow religious beliefs ("Why, Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise, I thought. Hot-weather yoga for the Bedouins. Asanas without sweat, heaven without strain."). Or to bash agnostics. Or something.
Be advised that this is not a book for children or the squeamish. Pi's transformation from vegetarian to unflinching killer, and Richard Parker's dietary habits, are rife with gratuituously gory details about the manner in which animals suffer and are killed and eaten.
The story promises to make you believe in God. Yet with Martel's insistence that a well-crafted story is just as good as or even preferable to reality, he leaves us not believing in a god of any kind, but rather suggesting that we embrace the stories that religions have made up about their gods, regardless of those stories' relation to scientific knowledge, since the stories are so darn nice, comfy, warm, and fuzzy in comparison with real life. Whether the God in the stories actually exists, meanwhile, becomes totally irrelevant. So ultimately, Martel makes a case for why he thinks people SHOULD believe in God -- it's a respite from harsh reality, we're told, a way to hide from life rather than meet it head-on with all of its pains and struggles -- and that's quite different from what he ostensibly set out to do. He trivializes God into a "nice story," a trite characterization sure to offend many readers.
Pi sums up this postmodern worldview by telling the ship investigators, "The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?" Well, no, the world IS just the way it is, in all of its highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies, happiness and sadness. But Pi and Martel's solution is to avoid the whole messy thing altogether, pretend that the way things are don't really exist, and pull a security blanket of fiction over your head. Create your own reality as you see fit. That's called escapism. It's fine when you want to curl up with a good book on a rainy day and get lost in the story for a few hours, but it's a lousy way to try to deal with real life.
Pi would tell me that I lack imagination, just as he told the investigators they lacked imagination when Pi claimed he couldn't "imagine" a bonsai tree since he's never seen one, as a way of mocking the investigators' reluctance to believe in Pi's carnivorous island. (Nice cultural stereotyping with the bonsai, by the way -- the investigators are Japanese.) But you see the problem, right? It's not a matter of lacking imagination. It's a matter of conflating things that are obviously imaginary with things that are obviously real. They're not one and the same. It's ludicrous to suggest otherwise. You might as well say that the story of Frodo and the Ring is every bit as real as the American Revolution.
Pi also tells us, quite pointedly, that choosing agnosticism is immobilizing, while atheists and religious folks make a courageous leap of faith. Yet immobility is precisely where Pi places us, so that by the time the book ends, you're stuck not knowing what to think about what you've just read. Do you accept the original shipwreck story just because it's more engrossing, even if it's less believable? Or do you accept the plausible but boring story Pi gives to the officials after he's rescued? Fanciful religious allegories or cold, scientific recitation of facts that might come from the mouth of an atheist -- we're expected to pick one or the other.
But it's a false dichotomy. We needn't make a choice between embracing religious tales merely because they're more interesting or settling for the sobering realities of science and reason. We can go as far as our reason will take us and then leave ourselves open to further possibilities -- just as Pi himself suggests. That's not immobility. That's intellectual honesty -- an admission that I don't know all the answers but am willing to keep an open mind about whatever else is presented to me.
Seems better than saying you might as well just accept the better story since it really makes no difference. That's laziness. And it doesn't make for a very good story.