I’ve been hearing for almost a decade about the novel The Life of Pi. The book has been recommended to me by everybody from a professor, to a roommate, to a college boyfriend. I put off reading it for years — nothing about the novel seemed terribly interesting to me, and the fact that it was a NYT Bestseller was not a better draw. Then my dad — who I respect more than anyone else I know — recommended it and, daddy’s girl and dutiful daughter that I was, I obliged. The problem with reading a book that’s been so highly recommended, however, is obvious — my expectations were set high. Really, really high.
It was a good book. It certainly was not one of my favorite books. But it was good.
The book jacket reads: Yann Martel’s imaginative and unforgettable Life of Pi is a magical reading experience, an endless blue expanse of storytelling about adventure, survival, and ultimately, faith. The precocious son of a zookeeper, 16-year-old Pi Patel is raised in Pondicherry, India, where he tries on various faiths for size, attracting “religions the way a dog attracts fleas.” Planning a move to Canada, his father packs up the family and their menagerie and they hitch a ride on an enormous freighter. After a harrowing shipwreck, Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean, trapped on a 26-foot lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a spotted hyena, a seasick orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Apparently it is also a very pretty movie.
The book itself reads like three separate novels: the beginning is a beguiling travelogue, that speaks in tantalizing language about zoos, animal behavior, and religion. It is a bewitching beginning — the language is strong and evocative, and it’s really quite interesting. The narrator had always grown up around zoos, and went on to study animal behavior, and provides a strong background on the zoo as an institution. Similarly, the narrator is struggling (or not struggling?) with his own religion. He was raised Hindu, but visits a Catholic church and an Islamic temple, ultimately deciding that he will be a Christian Muslim Hindu. There is no drama in this decision, though the behavior of the priest/pastor/spiritual leader points toward the strong political divides and the ever-lasting wars that erupt over differences in religion.
The second third of the novel is a survival tale: how does a young boy survive on a raft, with minimal supplies and a tiger, for almost a year? This part dragged on in tedium — likely a deliberate action by the writer. Just as the narrator struggles in doldrums of being adrift at sea, with no action and no dialogue, so, too, does the reader. The rest of the novel is so thoughtful and well-mapped out that I can only assume that the tedium of the center third was deliberate — even if so, it certainly slowed down my reading of that portion of the novel.
The final third reads like a modern psychological thriller, as doctors try to figure out what is real and what isn’t. This section is told entirely in transcript form — for the first time, the reader is pulled out of the narrator’s mind, and forced to see the world through a more objective lens, and the question at the end remains: what is real, and what is not?
I struggle a bit with the themes of the book: there seems to be a lingering theme of dualities that exist in harmony, though that theme is not fully carried through. The book had a few fatal flaws: firstly, the narrative voice. Yann Martel chose an interesting structure for the book: the book is, allegedly, written by him, but the story is that of a second character. Everything that happens is filtered, then, through two people: Pi, who allegedly underwent the events, and the author, who interviews Pi and diligently writes out the story. This results in a narrative distance: Pi never feels like a true character. Nor is there any sense of urgency: the reader knows, from the first sentence, that Pi will survive his ordeal. Thus, the terror normally inherent in putting a character on a boat with a Bengal tiger disappears. By the end of the book I was indifferent to what happened to Pi. Similarly, the plot struggles a bit, from being broken into three different chunks. And each third of the book also seems to struggle with drastically different themes, which do not resolve at the end.
I can only assume that the multiple recommendations are the result of a “twist” near the end of the novel (it seems, lately, that all of the books that I’m reading have these “twists”: a note to aspiring authors — there doesn’t need to be a “twist” to make a novel worthwhile! Just write a solid story with relateable characters!).
There was one theme that seemed to carry through, and that was this idea of very separate elements being capable of existing harmoniously together. As I already mentioned, the narrator, Pi, manages to devoutly follow three separate religions that all have the same core: this foundation in love and peace. (There is a sound enough recommendation, for the first hundred pages, at least — a reminder that most religions do not promote war, but the opposite — so how does war result from their practice?). Similarly, we learn about a strange pairing at the zoo: goats and rhinoceri that happily share a pen. The narrator is also nearly-obsessed with the idea of escaped zoo animals inhabiting the worlds largest cities: boa constrictors in the sewers of Tokyo, giraffes wandering through New York, black panthers in Mexico City — this idea of two things that shouldn’t co-exist, but do.
Then, in the middle of the novel is, of course, the existence of a tiger and a human boy. Enough said about that.
The end of the novel (and here stop reading if you don’t want to know about the alleged “twist”) also speaks to this strange idea of two “others” coexisting. A pair of Japanese insurance investigators interview Pi about his experience. After he tells them everything (boat sinking, tiger on lifeboat, etc. etc.) they inform him that they don’t believe him, and ask for the truth. He tells them a second story — one in which the animals in his first serve as metaphors for real people. In this second story he is on the lifeboat not with a zebra, hyena, orangutan and tiger, but with a soldier, a cook, and his mother. Just as the hyena killed the zebra, the cook kills the soldier. Just as the hyena killed the orangutan, the cook kills Pi’s mother. And just as the tiger kills the hyena, Pi kills the cook.
Wisely, the author leaves certain portions of the first story out: there are huge narrative moments that are not explained by this second story. The reader is left questioning which of the two stories is more real: the fantastic one, complete with animals, or the one of human tragedy, in which a young boy, faced with great trauma, creates a new world for himself in order to psychologically shield himself from the trauma. The Japanese ultimately decides that it doesn’t matter: there are two stories, which exist simultaneouly and separately. The boy prefers the one with animals, and out of respect for him, they accept that story. The second one does not go away, however, and it is in the mind of the reader that the two exist simultaneously — each still separate, but together in harmony.
This final moment is a strong one, and I have no doubt that it is this question at the end that leads to so many people being fervent supporters of the book. I also loved the end — I just didn’t love how separate it felt from what preceded, with only this thin fiber of thematic consistency tying it all together. It is a good leisure book, however — a “read on a 17 hour plane ride” movie more than beach reading. It would be good to read on a cold day, under an afghan, with a cup of coffee. And it’s an excellent book to discuss — I look forward to meeting with my dad this weekend, to talk about religion, animals, and the Michigan football team (because it’s football season, which always ends in a Hail! and a Go Blue!).