Sunday, 5 December 2010

Life of PI by Yann Martel

"I have a story that will make you believe in God, " says a strange Indian man to a Canadian novelist. That is how the latter encounters the unbelievable story of Piscine Patel (or Pi), which he shares from first person point of view in this amazing novel. Life of Pi combines strong believe in God (in all of its forms) with extensive knowledge about animals and zoology. Sounds like the two areas have nothing in common but Martel combines them to create a revolutionary and original novel, one that keeps surprising the reader up until the very end.

Piscine Patel is a young Indian boy, whose parents own a zoo in Pondicherry, India. In the late 1970s, when the political situation is unbearable, the whole family decides to flee its home country on a cargo ship through the Pacific Ocean and into Canada. The cargo ship is like Noah's ark - Pi's father is bringing along all of the animals to sell them in the US and in Canada. After the tragic sinking of the ship, the only survivors are Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a Royal Bengal tiger. All trapped on a small solitary lifeboat. That is how Pi's adventure towards salvation begins.

I was given the book by my roommate. To be honest, when I read the title I had no idea what the book will be about. After all, Life of Pi can be the life of ANY person, animal, or creature. When I read the back cover I was disappointed. It sounded like an adventure story about children, where good overcomes common sense. To be honest, the first couple of pages didn't change my mind. However, the following ones did. And the end was extraordinary. Definitely got me thinking.

Life of Pi is structured as a story within a story. The narrator (not necessarily Yann Martel) encounters the story when he is visiting India and tells it from Pi's point of view. Pi's name, which resembles the irrational number 3.14 is essential to the story; pi is a number that goes on forever without a discernable pattern and is used in the calculation of a circle's radius and diameter. In the same way, Pi's life on the lifeboat and his struggle of survival are also irrational; trapped with a tiger the little boy has to overcome all challenges and difficulties while floating without direction or purpose in the Pacific ocean.

understanding about religion is another part of the novel that attracts attention. Born as a Hindu, the boy is fascinated with Christianity and Islam as well. Confronted by the three religions, Pi refuses to pick just one; for the Indian God is one and he loves all people. This rather liberal understanding of religion is unique to the story; it helps Pi through the difficulties on the lifeboat, it allows him to store his courage and strength and to survive.

I come to the most interesting part of the novel. Pi is rescued and he is telling his tale to Japanese officials of the Ministry of Transport. The boy shares two stories with them - as he refers to them "the one with the animals" and "the one without". I personally have my opinion about which of the stories is the real one. Faced with the strive for survival, people exhibit their worst characteristics - they become savage, selfish, and ruthless; they rely on their instincts rather than on their feelings. Just like animals, the strongest will survive. My understanding is as follows: Pi chooses to tell his story with symbolic animals - each representing one of the sole survivors of the sunk ship. When the officials claim his story unreal and unbelievable, he tells another one - "without animals". Whatever the truth is, as Pi points out it doesn't matter - he has lost his family, he has suffered, but he has survived. Quite brightly, thus, he asks the Japanese officials whether the "animals story" is better than the other one.

The narrator's point of view is obvious in the following quote - "That's what fiction is about, isn't it? The selective transforming of reality?" Life of Pi is a unique and original novel, which has many layers to be explored and discussed. I rarely say that about a book, but I would have definitely loved to have studied it in school. The author's logic and psychology is so deep and enthralling that I am disappointed to say I feel I only understood a very little part of the novel. Looking like a shallow children's book on the outside, Life of Pi is a very ADULT (if there is such a definition) novel about the challenges we face in life and the strength and courage needed to overcome them.

I sincerely thank my roommate for sharing this book with me.


  1. Part 1

    When trying to explain to a work colleague what life of Pi was about, I thought how could I do that without giving away the plot, but also making it sound interesting enough for him to want to read it. He might think it's Rudyard Kipling's The jungle book, but set at sea lol or some disney type thing. So my simple explanation was, it's about a 16 year old boy with no seafaring survival skills. He some how physically survives 227 days at sea in a life boat. Pi also manages to keep himself mentally intact some how. This was demonstrated by Pi’s quick, clever and funny retorts to the investigators from the Japanese shipping company at the end of the book.

    When my work colleague finally finished reading this book, he said "the story didn't make him believe in god". I pointed out that it was never Pi's or the author’s take on the story but it was the old man’s view. As written in the book "First wonder goes deepest, wonder after that fits in the impression made by the first" The old man was religious therefore his first wonder might have been a religious one. He would have tried to fit Pi's story into his religious mould(impression). Like the cargo cults of the south pacific on hearing about modern technology, they fitted the story of technology into their way of understanding the world, and moulded the facts to fit with their life view.

    As for me I liked the way the author used the animals to paint a vibrant colourful picture, not so bleak looking given the situation that Pi found himself in. The second tale without the animals felt rather grey, depressing and inhuman.

    So can a tiger and a boy coexist on a life boat together?? well Pi goes into great detail about what a zoo animal requires, and if these needs are met it should be content. The needs being, water, food, territory, routine and companionship (I personally liked the story of the snake and the mouse:D that lived together at the zoo). So are these requirements met for the story to be true for the tiger?. Pi only ever mentioned what a Zoo animal would require to be content. Pi himself would require a lot more than a tiger would to keep himself emotionally well. The basics of food and water were obtainable for Pi to physically sustain himself, the human desire for communication would have only slightly been met by him writing in his diary and to be honest a tiger doesn't sound like good company to me. So emotionally he would have been extremely deprived.

  2. Part 2

    I feel the first tale was descript of his emotional journey. One example, He encountered the carnivorous Island quite sometime into his physical journey, I feel at this point he would have been physically and mentally completely drained, reaching a point of hopelessness. When he realised what the Island was, he mentioned that the Island wouldn't kill him straight away if he remained there, but it would slowly eat away at his soul. I feel this Island was symbolic of his despair, as when he left the Island he felt uplifted and more positive. So what does Richard parker represent ?

    Does this mean I believe the second story ? No. The investigators should have rejected the second story as well to see if Pi would have offered another story. The first and second stories were both very good and coherent, neither story made me feel like he was just making it up in the moment. That leaves me to believe both stories must have already been written in his imagination sometime before. I think Pi was on the life boat the whole time by himself. Once he figured out a routine of getting food and water to look after the physical side of things, he them had to do something to occupy his mind, that being making up stories to escape his physical reality.

    Pi said apart from salvation the thing he wanted the most was a book. Another quote was The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. Was the use of his imagination away to escape his physical reality and his mental suffering brought about by the loss of his whole family on the ship.

    After all Pi had 3 religions, he might have had more if he simply encountered then on his quest. He only told 2 stories, but he wasn’t pushed for another one because the second story fitted with the investigators rational, so they didn't ask for another one. Is there a 3rd ? This is my take on the story and in no way am I saying it is correct, everyone has a different view. Like you said it is very multi layered book. Ollie

  3. Thanks for the coherent reply, Ollie. It was definitely lovely to read it.

    I personally haven't thought about the 3rd option you mention - that Pi might have invented both of the stories. Now, however, as I begin to unravel the story once again in my head, I find it a very good possibility. After all you are right, when human beings satisfy their primary physical needs (food and shelter) they always need something (or someone) to satisfy their emotional needs. Solitude is a dangerous thing; it can transform a perfectly healthy individual into a lunatic. It also provokes human conscience to search for other ways to nurture this emotional need of personal contact. Spending more than 200 days alone in the sea can drive anyone crazy. And here another interpretation popped into my head - maybe Pi's overreligiousness (I just invented that word to be exact) helped him survive by himself for so long. The boy realized that not lack of food or shelter, but loneliness will be the "beast" that will kill him. To survive, Pi kept his mind occupied constantly, living in his own imaginary world.

    I just love this book. There are so many layers to explore and to analyze. I really wished we had studied it at school because I would like to here more opinions about it. Sometimes other people (just like you now) notice things I haven't even thought about and just drive my mind in a completely different direction.

    I also tried to recommend this novel to a friend of mine but she wasn't excited at all. I just begged her to read it and I almost convinced her she would love it. But to explain the greatness of this book is pretty much to ruin the pleasure of reading it.

  4. Overreligiousness! I think that is what attracted the media's attention to this book in the first place. The book was released in a period when it was consider unfashionable to talk about religion, but the day it was released was the day that people started asking the question about coexistence of two of the religions in the book. 1st Released in Canada on the 11th September 2001.

  5. Interesting trivia. I didn't know that but obviously a very good date for the book to be released. The more I think about the book, the more I like it. How is this possible?

  6. When I first read Life of Pi, to me the two stories could be viewed as an allegory for the Creation–evolution controversy. We accept that we as humans exist in the here and now, just as we accept that Pi survived. We are presented with two stories on how he survived and in both he made it to Mexico a live. Religion and science have conflicting arguments/stories (God vs (abiogenesis and evolution)) on how we as humans arrived to being. The point that I thought Yann Martel was trying to make, it's extraordinary we exist in the first place and doesn't matter which story is true, but simply forget about the hows and the whats and just get on with living your real life. But I was wrong about that :(

    In this interview he is really into spirituality and he was trying to get the reader to take the leap of faith, and believe in the tiger in the boat story. I’ll just go back to shallower waters now and finish reading an autobiography, just the one layer to think about.

    I can see the upside of buying one of those Kindle e-readers though, no one can see what book I'm reading :D Ollie

  7. thanks for sharing.

  8. Lora, your blog is very enjoyable and I just read your piece on the Game. Your insights, your funny takes, your honesty, your own fascination with the books and their impact on you and your life are all vivid, human, humane and delightful to read. You will be a writer soon and one day I hope I will find time also to do the same.
    Enjoy life as you would a book for there will always be a beginning, a middle and an end. And if we by chance finish life with the same smile as a well read book then wouldn't that be something to live for.... Stay fun, interesting and happy.