Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was different than what I expected. I haven’t seen the movie, but the trailers led me to believe this story was going to be a minimalist tale of a boy stuck on a boat with a tiger. While this buddy-cop plot IS a majority of the story, the undertones are deeper than just that. The story is exciting, sure. And the backstory of religion, self-knowledge, and animal facts is interesting, fine. But I daresay the reader is too often barraged with long lists of animals and their traits. Or hit with a string of foods and ingredients that become a jumbled mess of words and commas. I’ll admit some of the confusion is because I’m a middle-class, typical American white guy that knows very little about Indian cuisine or exotic taxonomy. Pacing was an itchy subject for me. There are a few times I felt a little irked, confused, or straight up bewildered during the Pacific Ocean chapters. The whole island bit near the end seemed pinned in out of nowhere. In the end, I was left wondering why the author bothered with certain aspects. The entire sequence about Mamaji and swimming and pools was completely out of left (cricket) field. Spoiler alert: if you think there will be a part where Pi has to swim for his life and survives only because of his training from Mamaji, you’re wrong. There are some detailed explanations about the zoo, interactions with religious or non-religious people, and specific differences between religions that, in my little brain, seemed ill-connected with the rest of the plot.
But ultimately these “problems” are slight and do little to take away from an engaging story. Maybe a smarter person would say that the story is told by a narrator conveying a tale by a man who experienced the events (whether true or not) as a child. Whatever issues I may have with consistency, lack of overall suspense (the story starts with an explanation that the protagonist survives his ordeal), and seemingly odd situations, these issues get wrapped up in the last chunk of the story. I say wrapped up, and I don’t mean in a nice little bow, but rather in a large lacy thing that seems full of frivolous strings and ribbon and tape, yet not unattractive to the eye.
I was engaged throughout, despite a meandering introduction and first part. The ending made me utter one manly emotional sniff. Tom Hanks and his buddy Wilson would be moderately pleased. The story is worth reading, but don’t expect it to change your life. After examining it below, there are some solid themes at work, but I find them too obscure. Too convoluted. I rate this novel a 6/10.
Fascinating Conceptual Thoughts:
The story of Life of Pi presents some interesting concepts dealing with religion, loss, human fortitude, and perspective. The last of which, I believe, is meant to be the most important of the novel. But we’ll get to that point later. First we’ll start off with a concept explored early on: God. Along a desperate adventure of man versus nature (nature represented in as both living and nonliving) is an exploration into what motivates us as humans. To Piscine Molitor Patel, motivation manifest itself through God. Or gods, depending on his situation. When things are going his way, he thanks a god for his current blessing. I may just be remembering the story poorly, but more often than not Pi makes the best of his situations. Even at his most dire, he is observing his surroundings and thinking of his family or food or some equally innocuous thing. Let’s be honest, most of us would be pretty down in the dumps if we found our family was most likely dead and we were stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with a tiger as our chief companion. But instead Pi maintains a hopefulness, a cheerful optimism that, even if rescue doesn’t come today, he will persist. With this attitude, Pi exhibits the idea that all the universe, the world, and every creature on it is unique and there for a reason. The tiger gives him purpose, gives him a will to live. The turtles give him food and protection from the sun. Even the water itself acts as a training aid for Richard Parker. I was surprised by how little time he spent worrying about why it was him stuck in the middle of the ocean, and instead how much time he simply spent observing. Whether Martel intended this concept as an underlying moral to be learned, I’m not sure. But regardless, the idea popped into my head, so here it is. Don’t fret about the little (or even the big) things in life that alter your course. You will almost always keep floating, one way or another. Look up once in awhile, and you will see more than the problems that drift like flotsam next to you.
Next is the idea of loss. You see movies where a character loses their parents or a job, and they’re moaning about “losing everything”. What babies. Pi loses literally every tangible thing that was once his. He had a home in India, but political changes lead his family out of the country and continent. The zoo which played such a large role in his childhood accompanied his home, and all of the resident animals were briskly sold across to zoos across the globe. He took all of this in stride however. He’s an upbeat boy that has his family to look after him and a new home in Canada waiting for him. Oh what’s that? It would be unthinkable to take those away from him too? Well that’s exactly what happens. This poor little kid makes Batman look like a petulant toddler. Martel missed a big opportunity in creating a vengeful Indian superhero who does all he can to vanquish the Pacific Ocean, that condemnable villain. So his immediate family is dead, presumably drowned without even a chance to say goodbye. And what’s really bad (and strangely remains unaddressed throughout the book) is that before deciding to explore the ship’s deck, an action that ultimately saves his life, he considers waking his brother to join him. But he lets the older boy sleep, thus resulting in him being trapped under the water with his parents. So not only do they all die, but Pi could have prevented at least one death had he known. A majority of the animals he loved either go down with the boat or die in other unceremonious ways. Two times he finds another friendly animal, only to have it killed by his lifeboat-mate, the hyena – which I only just now realized is the only of Pi’s companions that remains unnamed, perhaps furthering the idea of it being a brief antagonist before meeting its demise to the jaws of Richard Parker. So anyways, this kid’s got nothing. Some dudes throw him overboard in the attempt to save themselves, but he gets away with the boat (thankfully Martel decided to magnanimously give him this one thing). He has a whistle and some biscuits and other emergency supplies, which he uses all very cleverly to keep himself, and the tiger, going for as long as possible. But it all goes away. His clothes shred, his food disappears, components fall away here and there. He even loses his vision. And at his worst, after he has lost the real hope to survive, he is not downtrodden. He accepts it. Through his faith in God/gods or even just being too tired to care, he sees death coming and simply rolls with it. Sort of makes all of our problems seem pretty inconsequential, huh? His final “loss” is of course Richard Parker. Martel could have gone the route of the good guy dying in his buddy’s arms, killing the tiger and Pi loses a friend. But instead what he loses, in a more tragic turn of events, is the assumption that he ever had a friend to begin with. This was the best part of the entire novel for me, and really forged a connection with Pi. Finally something bothered him! He was on land, near society, rescue at hand. But Richard Parker, without a moment’s pause, ditches him and disappears into the forest. Afterall, Pi is human, and Richard Parker is an animal. No amount of “domestication”, either through zoo-keep or whistle-blowing on a lifeboat, could change the instincts of the tiger.
Pi is rescued and transported to a hospital and everybody feels really badly for him. And why wouldn’t they? People go through heart attacks, car accidents, and physical violence every day. What you don’t see very often is a lone shipwreck survivor who made it over 200 some days on the ocean, let alone a child. This is where the tone of the book completely shifts. The interview with the two Japanese guys transitioned the story from one about a kid stuck at sea to a story, a tale, a series of words arranged in a particular order to elicit a response of both intrigue and emotion. I suddenly stopped caring about Pi’s time on the Pacific and suddenly found myself caring about his family again. The novel is told through a couple different lenses, and it isn’t until this point that the reader can understand why this is so. The whole point is that perspective changes. We consciously decide what we tell people, worried about what they think of us, worried about how they’ll treat us. But more importantly it’s about what we tell ourselves. The suggestion at the end is that the entire meat of the story, the whole Richard Parker in a boat on the ocean hitting an island then leaving again, could have been entirely made up. Piscine Patel might have fabricated the entire thing as a coping mechanism. The Japanese guys scoff at the tale of tigers and bananas and so they are provided with another story, one more realistic but much more difficult to, let’s say, enjoy. Maybe the first story isn’t meant to be taken literally, but instead to convey all of the same emotions felt throughout. Maybe we as the reader are to see the entire work as allegorical, the allegory being a simultaneous series of events that played out much differently than we originally thought. Does this idea sound familiar? The story starts with descriptions of the backstories for Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, and then some stuff goes down and Pi makes up his own story. His own lore, if you will. While the plot may be fantastical, highly coincidental (two blind seafarers meeting in the middle of the Pacific?), and scientifically unverifiable, everybody still knows of his suffering. The feelings of compassion and sympathy these people feel for him are not baseless. The base may have different imagery, but is still deserving. He created his own allegory to replace a truth that is more painful, sure, but that pain falls only on him. So in the end, which is the more enjoyable story? Which is the one that we are more likely to listen to?
Click the link to buy the book on Amazon. Yes, I’ll get some cash if you buy it through this link. No, it won’t cost you anything extra. I’m stuck in a boat and this referral could buy me an sail. Just do it.