Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel has been on my radar for quite awhile. I was aware of it back when it first became popular, winning awards and on display at every bookstore, but something always kept me from reading it. For whatever reason, my impression was that it was a dense, philosophical novel based in some kind of unrealistic fairy tale world. So I ignored it. But then Ang Lee, one of my very favorite directors, turned it into a movie. And a co-worker told me it was his favorite book of all time. I decided I was missing out.
And I was missing out. This book was nothing like I expected, but it is one of the best books I've read in awhile. This is no opaque, philosophical tract, but a rousing adventure story of an adolescent Indian boy lost at sea. What I thought would be a ridiculous plot point of a boy sharing a lifeboat with a tiger was incredibly well done. It felt real, and every time Martel described Richard Parker's (the tiger) actions, I could clearly see them in my head. In fact, halfway through the book, I was so attached to the tiger I became preoccupied with what would happen to him. Piscine or Pi Patel is a unique, smart, and likable character. This book could have worked as a simple adventure story, but Martel adds a couple more layers that do not detract from the adventure story but add to the overall thoughtfulness and meaning of the story. I'm glad I finally got around to reading this one, and I would definitely recommend it, although I'm pretty sure everyone who has wanted to has read it by now.
For the rest of this review, I'm going to discuss whatever parts of the book stuck with me in a very spoilerish fashion.
This first one isn't very important, but Martel kind of pissed me off at the very beginning of the novel, and it took a little while for him to recover in my eyes. The first two points Pi made as narrator were a defense of zoos and a defense of religion. I'm fine with religion, but I'm not religious and I was afraid I was about to be preached at (more on religion later). It was the commentary about zoos that really annoyed me. When Pi explains, contrary to what we might think, how good zoos are, he says, "[t]hink about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you?" That comparison is ridiculous. A more apropos comparison: Would you choose to be locked in a Motel 6 with no opportunity to leave, eating the same thing everyday, with no control over your life or partners, and strangers darting you and prodding at you with no warning? Or would you choose to be free to live your own life, however dangerous and risky. I wouldn't call a tiger living in its natural habitat homeless. And even if it is a really nice zoo, being locked up in the Ritz would be only slightly less boring than being locked up in a Motel 6. The zoo where I live has pretty nice enclosures for the lions and hyenas. You can walk by and they appear to be pretty content. But then you walk over by the small leopard cage and the poor thing runs in crazy, constant circles around the perimeter of its cage.
Religion does feature prominently in this book. Pi himself adopted all three religions available to him in India, ignoring their contradictions and embracing the best of all of them. In addition, Pi's entire ordeal in the lifeboat reminded me of Job's trials in the Bible, and no matter how bad it got, Pi never gave up on God. "It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God." In addition, Pi picks "fruit" from a tree in the middle of the ocean that actually holds a human tooth. It is this "fruit" that gives Pi the knowledge of the reality of the island and gets him moving to his destination rather than languishing on the dangerous island. This part of the book was screaming Adam and Eve at me, although I'm not sure what, if any, point the author was making here. Eve was sinning by taking the forbidden fruit and gaining knowledge. Pi saved himself by taking the fruit and learning how the island worked...so taking the fruit (sinning) is a good thing?
According to Wikipedia, Barack Obama wrote a letter to Martel in 2010 (apparently it took Obama awhile to get around to reading this one, too) stating that Life of Pi was "an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling." Now, I like Obama more than most politicians, but I don't agree with him on the proof of God bit. I liked the story a lot and it made me think, but my views on God were not challenged.
I think the "proof of God" viewpoint comes from the two versions of Pi's struggles on the lifeboat: one involving the tiger, hyena, and orangutan; and the one involving the cook, Pi's mother, and the young sailor. When the Japanese ship insurer's don't believe Pi's story, he says, "If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe?...I know what you want. You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story." This seems to challenge those who find God hard to believe in. And then Pi asks a fascinating question, "Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without the animals?" When both men (and me, reading) agree that it is the story with the animals, Pi answers, "And so it goes with God." So, is this a defense of all the somewhat crazy stories in the Bible (and other religious texts)? That the actual facts don't matter, it's what you learn from them?
And why was the story with the animals so much better than the story with the people? I have a couple of ideas. As hard as it was to read about the animals killing each other, it was an understandable part of nature. The idea of people, instead, doing the same thing to each other brings with it so many ideas of wrongness, shame, regret, and guilt that it ends up complicating the story. This highlights how different people are from animals--perhaps explaining why people need religion and animals do not. The animals also lend a unique and exotic perspective on a story that's been told many times. Of the thousands of stories of shipwrecks, how many involve a tiger in a battle with a shark? Finally, and most simply, the story with the animals was the first one we learned, it is the one with all the details and the one with all of the suspense. Of course we like that one better.
I liked this book and it made me think. And now I'm looking forward to finally seeing the movie!
"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."