Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
Page Count: 326 pages
By Lynne DeMichele
(UMC.org) -- Life of Pi is a riveting and charismatic tale about a 16-year-old East Indian castaway that defies conventional categorizing. It’s often horrific, at times hilarious, and will leave a persistent pull on your psyche as it did mine. This best-selling book seems to have touched a universal nerve in its disarming exploration of eternal truth. Winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for literature, it continues to appear on bestseller lists in the U.S. and Europe. One literary critic aptly describes it as “Old Man and the Sea as written by Kipling.”
The story is audacious. In an uncertain political climate the boy, Pi Patel, and his family uproot themselves and their small public zoo intending to move to Canada. En route, the freighter transporting them suddenly sinks in the night. From a lifeboat, Pi spots the zoo’s pride, an enormous Bengal tiger, paddling toward him through the turgid water. It is a pivotal moment. He extends an oar to help the big cat climb aboard. Too late, the folly of his well-intentioned deed hits him; Pi finds himself sharing his boat with 450 pounds of ferocious fur.
When that first terrible night is over other survivors in the 27-foot lifeboat include a zebra, orangutan and hyena. In the weeks that follow, hope for the survival of his family and of rescue evaporates, and Pi must watch as, one by one, each of the other animals meets a gory end. Worse, he knows eventually he would be next unless he can figure out some way to save himself. Ultimately a co-dependent relationship develops between tiger -- curiously named Richard Parker -- and Pi. It is the marrow of the story and, counterintuitively, it means salvation for them both.
|From a lifeboat, Pi spots the zoo’s pride, an enormous Bengal tiger, paddling toward him through the turgid water. It is a pivotal moment. He extends an oar to help the big cat climb aboard. Too late, the folly of his well-intentioned deed hits him; Pi finds himself sharing his boat with 450 pounds of ferocious fur.|
Yann Martel, a world-traveling Canadian novelist, begins the book with a note explaining how its premise came to him. He had chosen the culturally, spiritually rich country of India to write his next book, but gave up on it when it failed to “come to life.” Shortly after, he chances on an old man who offers to tell him a story “that will make you believe in God.” On returning to Canada, he searches out the man in the story, Piscine Molitor Patel, now grown, and befriends him. The product of their friendship becomes Martel’s fictionalized account of “Pi” Patel’s story of survival against all odds. The adventure is fine reading on its own, but even more compelling is the philosophical/theological matrix within which everything happens.
We first meet Pi as a youth in India; he is spiritually precocious, and curious to the point of obsession. At 14 he becomes an ardent practicing Hindu-Christian-Muslim, confounding his parents and spiritual mentors. One day in the village market ideologies collide in a memorable scene in which the boy’s priest, pandit and imam almost come to blows over his soul. When his mother asks Pi for his own opinion, he answers, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” Though amusing, the scene is more importantly a microcosm of religious conflict.
Later when the narrative takes its dramatic turn and Pi finds himself adrift on an endless and terrifying sea, you find yourself drawn into his story in a much more personal way. You become his invisible companion, suffering with him the privations of thirst, fear, hunger and a soul-shriveling loneliness. At the same time, there is always something happening. And there are times when Pi’s vision of life, so cramped by circumstance, is jolted by the unexpected: an assault by a flock of flying fish, a shocking encounter with another castaway, a battle between the tiger and a shark.
Pi is uniquely spiritual in his interaction with the environment in which he finds himself. He’s an engaging, ever-curious young man and delightful in his resourcefulness. You are pleased to be in his company and listening to his musings and “dialogues” with Richard Parker whom he greatly fears. Although you know Pi is destined to survive what will be a months-long ordeal, you can’t imagine how as you accompany him avidly through terror, despair, elation and back again.
In less capable hands, the story could have been too much to endure. But even among the most despairing days at sea there is mercy in humor. In one vignette, an enormous roar from the tiger sends a rat racing up onto Pi’s head triggering a cartoonish sequence of events. The long ordeal is also relieved when the lifeboat comes to a brilliant, green floating island where Pi and Richard Parker refresh themselves for several weeks. The island turns out to be more insidiously dangerous than the open sea, however, and tiger and boy return to life together in the small boat.
|In less capable hands, the story could have been too much to endure. But even among the most despairing days at sea there is mercy in humor.|
Life of Pi operates far outside the usual realm of popular fiction on many levels. It is “true fiction,” a spiritual quest, a coming of age story, an unparalleled adventure. It is also a philosophical mystery, a kind of Zen koan, offering questions but no answers. A koan is a philosophical conundrum used for centuries by Buddhist teachers to encourage their students to reach ever deeper toward spiritual enlightenment. Jesus, too, used what seemed like riddles to challenge his followers to “think outside the box.” In Life of Pi there are no clear answers to the big questions implied by the story. Some have no answer at all. Those are life questions and they will continue to haunt you.
At one point in his loneliness at sea Pi remembers, "My greatest wish -- other than salvation -- was to have a book. A long book with a never-ending story. One that I could read again and again, with new eyes and fresh understanding each time." Life of Pi is that kind of book.
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Lynne DeMichele is a professional writer, editor and former director of communications for the Indiana Area United Methodist Church.
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