Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002, 319 pages
Pi Patel has been raised in a zoo in India. When his father decides to move the family to Canada and sell the animals to American zoos, everyone boards a Japanese cargo ship. The ship sinks, and 16-year-old Pi finds himself alone on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger.
Soon it's just Pi, the tiger, and the vast Pacific Ocean - for 227 days. Pi's fear, knowledge, and cunning keep him alive until they reach the coast of Mexico, where the tiger disappears into the jungle. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story, so he tells a second one - more conventional, less fantastic. But is it more true?
A realistic, rousing adventure and meta-tale of survival, Life of Pi explores the redemptive power of storytelling and the transformative nature of fiction. It's a story, as one character claims, to "make you believe in God".
"It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them - and then they leap. I'll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for awhile. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."
Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a swimming pool in Paris, dubs himself "Pi" through ingenuous performance art in school to avoid the mockery of his schoolmates over the unfortunate pronunciation of his name. He goes on to become an earnest young polytheist, simultaneously embracing Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. This does not go over well with Christians, Hindus, or Muslims. Hence we get to the heart of Life of Pi early on: the message is one of universality and faith. Except for those stupid agnostics.
"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."
Although the straw-atheists and straw-agnostics made me sigh a bit, Yann Martel does turn a phrase, and his blending of pithy messages with a metaphorical yet tense tale of survival (with animals!) makes this book's pick as a Man-Booker Prize winner unsurprising. There is such a fervently spiritual-but-offend-no-one (except maybe agnostics) message in this book that it makes me wonder how it didn't wind up an Oprah book club pick. Here's another assortment of quotes:
"If there's only one nation in the sky, shouldn't all passports be valid for it?"
"If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"
"These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy...walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, 'Business as usual.' But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening."
The spiritual observations lace a story that is, on the surface, a tale of survival on the high seas. Pi Patel and his family, having sold their zoo to emigrate to Canada, are aboard a Japanese freighter with their menagerie when the ship goes down. Only Pi, among his family, makes it off the ship and onto a life boat. He winds up being the only human survivor, but aboard the lifeboat with him are a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and Richard Parker.
(Spoiler: Richard Parker is a tiger.)
(Why people say this is a spoiler, I don't know, since after a few chapters of being coy, it's revealed quite early, well before they wind up on the lifeboat together.)
"Life on a lifeboat isn't much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces. The elements couldn't be more simple, nor the stakes higher."
Pi and Richard Parker spend over seven months on that lifeboat. Here is where zoology and survival sublimates spirituality, in a thrilling adventure that will actually make you believe that a skinny sixteen-year-old vegetarian could stay alive on a lifeboat in the company of a 450-pound carnivore. The author then does a bit of rug-pulling at the end, but convincingly so. I was prepared to feel conned, but instead was left admiring his art.
"Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love.
I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once. That pain is like an axe that chops at my heart."
Life of Pi (2012)
The movie is not quite as good as the book, but it's very good. It won four Academy Awards, and managed to be a beautiful film while mostly staying true to the novel. It kept all the parts of the book — even that island, which was the most fantastic element — while preserving the book's essential message.
Most of what got lost were the detailed descriptions of how Pi cunningly used animal psychology to "tame" Richard Parker. In fact, the movie rather oddly showed Pi failing at exactly what worked in the book. But the powerful and beautiful images Yann Martel wrote about — whales and flying fish and sharks and ... yes, a green island of meerkats ... were all impressively rendered with the miracle of modern filmmaking, which makes any book "filmable."
Have you read Life of Pi?
Did you see the movie?
Verdict: Not quite a perfect book, and may rub orthodox atheists and orthodox believers alike the wrong way, but for its quotable prose and luminous imagery, for its gripping survival epic and relatable, resourceful, sympathetic protagonist, Life of Pi is a book that won me over despite my aversion to much-hyped books. It doesn't quite make my "highly recommended" list because of its spirituality-laden message and a certain verdant isle that tested my suspension of disbelief, but I do recommend it.
My complete list of book reviews.