Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s Booker-winning literary achievement, tells the story of sixteen year-old Piscine “Pi” Patel, the son of a zookeeper who, at sixteen, leaves his native India with his family and a menagerie of their zoo animals on a Japanse cargo ship. The Patels are bound for a new life in Canada, but when the ship sinks Pi finds himself the sole human survivor on a lifeboat also carrying a dazed orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, an ornery hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. As the circle of life progresses even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi and the tiger are soon all that remain. What follows is a literary patchwork of magical realism, seafaring survival, and the infinite reaches of faith.
Like so many books dubbed masterworks of recent literature – or simply “modern classics” – Life of Pi is a book that draws reactions diverse in the extreme. As with any novel, some readers will regret their time spent and for others the experience will be in their blood forever. I’m of the latter persuasion; this is the sort of novel that makes me stop to celebrate the sheer magic that a good story can achieve. I certainly count Pi Patel among the most richly-imagined characters I’ve ever read; he and his story of a boy and a tiger in a boat, simple on the surface yet impossibly complex underneath (much like the Pacific itself), will be with me for a very long time.
Martel lays the foundation for the tale with the words, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” So much is encompassed in that one sentence; it seems to tell us in advance that the story we are about to read will either move us or frustrate us beyond definition – as religion often does – and that we will many times find ourselves at a crossroads of faith. Faith is itself a main character, a survivor on that lifeboat, but the shape it takes in here is one of the most beautiful and, I think, most enchanting interpretations I’ve experienced. In the early chapters of the book we learn of Pi’s unconventional spiritual leanings: towards that of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. He lays his imaginative and ever-loving heart before the reader when, at the furrowed brows of his earthbound leaders – father, priest, imam, and pujari – young Pi simply says, “I just want to love God!” He does; and as his capacity for love transcends religious confines so does it transcend the hopelessness of tragedy and the chaos of desperation. In this alone, Pi and his story would be enough, but through Pi’s narrative Martel explores faith and life and love even further, shifting from witty to philosophical, from real to surreal. Within this intricate tapestry of art is the power to impact a reader’s life, the sort of impact we readers quest for every time we open a book.
Much of the novel exists with only Pi and the tiger (whose name, with an ecstatic sense of rightness, is Richard Parker), but through their interactions, the settings of territory and the solid language of emotion, the two pack more life into several hundred pages than I would have imagined possible. Martel heaps so much love and earnest heart into Pi’s narrative voice that the reader feels locked into this powerful, uneasy friendship of man and beast. Despite the abundance of violence between creatures (some reluctantly inflicted by devout vegetarian Pi), what struck me in the end was that I’ve rarely read such emotional and breathtaking writing about animals. The tremors of a ship rat clinging to safety in fear; the quiet, noble pain of the injured zebra; the gently quizzical nature of a contented meerkat; each comes to exotic life through Martel’s prose, which is fearless in its imaginative daring.
By the end of the book the reader is given a crossroads of belief, an opportunity to take a path obscured by the bramble of imagination, or one that offers the clarity of practicality. As the unforgettable narrator wisely observes, “Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love.” So it is with getting lost in a good story.
Life of Pi was my July pick for the TBR Pile Challenge, and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve kept myself distanced from the book and it’s film adaptation (something I hope to remedy soon) so I wouldn’t have much to influence the experience. When I finished reading I went to its Goodreads page and browsed other reviews – it never fails to amaze me when I see such a wild fluctuation from two- to five-star reviews. Just further proof of the subjective nature of books!
Title: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Genre: literary fiction, magical realism
Publisher: Mariner Books (Knopf, original)
Release date: May 1, 2003 (September 2001, original)
Source: personal collection
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