Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

As you probably know, this now-famous book is about an Indian-Canadian boy’s experience surviving at sea after a terrible shipwreck. But it’s about a lot more. It’s divided into three sections: the zoo in India, his time at sea, and his time in the infirmary in Mexico. It’s no surprise from the beginning of the book that he survives the shipwreck and lives to tell about it. The point of this book is not about the suspense of knowing whether he’ll survive.

While reading this book, I was slightly annoyed (but curious, too) about why the first 93 pages are mostly about Pi’s experience with religion and zoos (he, a practicing Hindu, becomes Muslim and Christian–all three simultaneously–to the confoundment of his parents). But Pi stresses the fact that there is one God/Truth/Reality, and all the different religions are just different ways of getting there. It’s an interesting read, and it definitely challenges that traditional way most people think about religion and—secondarily—zoos. This first section builds a necessary foundation, though, upon which the shipwreck narrative is stacked. It’s through understanding Pi’s beliefs that we better comprehend his reaction to his shipwreck and his actions to survive.

The next—and longest—section of the book details Pi’s experience surviving on a life boat for the greater part of a year—with a 450-pound tiger (named Richard Parker) on board. When he’s first on the ship, there is also a hyena, a orangutan, and a wounded zebra, but they quickly succumb. Then there’s just Pi and the tiger. Much of this section details the gritty aspects of survival. Pi has been a vegetarian all his life, and when the sea-biscuits run out, he has to rely on eating fish, turtles, and whatever else he can catch from the boat, to survive—as much as it pains him. There are some grisly details, but nothing worse than any other survival story. Though well written, this section was not stellar, and at this point I was wondering why this book became so famous. But wait for it.

Here’s where the spoilers begin. If you don’t mind the plot being spoiled, scroll down. But this last part made the book worthwhile for me, and the process of discovering it unexpectedly augmented my experience.

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The weirdness begins when Pi, on the verge of death, comes upon a floating island (this is after he had a “conversation” with Richard Parker, went blind, and killed another blind man who invaded his boat). The island is composed of algae that has somehow sprouted trees. To this point, the book has been filled with subtle allusions to religions, but at this point it becomes a bit more obvious. At this point, Pi has trained the tiger to respect him as the alpha male. Both Pi and the tiger leave the lifeboat to explore the island. Pi discovers that the plantlife on the island is edible, and the ecosystem is such that it filters out the salt from the ocean water, leaving pure, freshwater pools immersed within the island. The plantlife is sweet and a welcome change from Pi’s now carnivorous lifestyle. Richard Parker (the tiger) returns to the lifeboat every night, and Pi follows suit, worried that he will lose his position as alpha if he abandons the ship for too long.

The island is populated by countless meerkats. They are so inexperienced and sheltered on the little island that Pi can literally just pick them up, and Richard Parker can kill as many as he wants—they come to him willingly, like lemmings jumping off a cliff. It becomes tempting for Pi to stay on the island forever. There’s a clear connection here to the Garden of Eden. If you like analyzing things, you could have a field day here!

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Pi continues exploring the island, and Eden begins to fall. He sleeps in a tree one night (rather than on the ship) and notices that all the meerkats join him in the trees. Not a single one sleeps below. He awakens to see countless fish dying in the freshwater pools, yet the meerkats do not go down to eat them until morning. Pi further explores, finding a tree with strange fruit growing on it. A vegetarian, he is curious about the fruit, which he picks, only to discover it’s not actually fruit. It’s teeth, each one wrapped in leaf after leaf. Pi concludes that the island turns acidic when the sun is not out. The plants actually consume flesh (the “fruit” is the remains of a former, unlucky, inhabitant). Pi is disgusted and decides to leave. The Eden metaphor is less clean here, but one could analyze the nature of temptation and complacency. Would you stay on a near-perfect island, knowing that at night it became dangerous? Or would you return to the difficult and risky life on a tiny boat with a tiger?

Pi leaves.

He soon washes up on the shore of Mexico. There, he is taken to a hospital and interviewed by two Japanese officials who are trying to find out about the cause of the original shipwreck (which happened months earlier). There is some humor interwoven in this part of the book based on the fact that the “author” (the person who is writing down the story of Pi) got hold of a tape of the interview and translated the Japanese the interviewers used to communicate with each other while in the presence of Pi, who does not speak Japanese. Using this technique, the author shows the reader just what the Japanese interviewers really think about Pi’s wild story.

After some humor involving Pi’s squirreling away food, we learn that the interviewers do not believe Pi’s story. Pi tells them an alternate version of the story—this one much shorter than the original—in which the original animals on the ship were actually people (one of them his mother), and in which he was actually Richard Parker. It’s a disturbing story. One is left wondering whether it’s what really happened. Did Pi survive after witnessing the deaths of (and killing, in some cases) the other three people on the boat, and killing the blind intruder (something the tiger did in the original story)? Pi (and the author) withhold the absolute truth from the reader. It’s up to us to decide which story we believe.

With a narrator left to himself the entire time, and delusional on the sea from lack of regular food and water—and a habit of asphyxiating himself to enter a trance-like dreamworld—how can we trust him?

But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Pi has reminded us the whole time that there is one truth in the world. Each religion has its own path to arrive at that truth, but the religion doesn’t change the nature of the truth itself. Similarly, Pi has arrived safely in Mexico after the better part of a year at sea. Whether he survived with a boatload of animals or a boatload of people, the result is still the same. He reminds us that people, and religions (and he even considers science a sort of religion), love stories. They help us understand the world.

I recommend reading this book twice. Read it the first time with an open mind, and read it the second time with a questioning one.