Title: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Published: September 2001; my edition published 4 October 2012
Genre: literary fiction
Source: review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Pi Patel is a strange boy. Firstly, his full name is Piscine Molitor Patel, and he was named after a French swimming pool. He gave himself the name Pi after picking up the nickname ‘Pissing’ at school. Pi grew up in a zoo owned by his parents in the town of Pondicherry, on the coast of Tamil Nadu, India. Perhaps the most notable thing about him is that he loves religion. Pi is a boy who just really wants to worship God, and in doing so he comes to believe in multiple religions, beginning with Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. His non-believer parents are dismayed, and his religious leaders argue that Pi cannot be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim simultaneously because each set of beliefs contradicts and condemns the others. But Pi is unfazed, declaring that “All religions are true” and that he just wants “to love God”. He makes no attempt to reconcile the contradictions of his religions, and indulges in the rituals of all three.
I was surprised by this part of the story. Like many people, I knew of Life of Pi only as a story about a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger. That part begins about a third of the way into the novel. Due to political unrest in India, Pi’s parents sell the zoo and all the animals, and leave for Canada. They travel aboard a cargo ship with some of the animals, and the ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific for reasons that Pi never learns.
As far as he knows, he is the only survivor, stuck on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra with a broken leg. A 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker is on the boat too, but it’s a few days before a terrified Pi realises he’s there. The other three animals come to violent, gruesome ends, and Pi is left to find some way of surviving with a massive, dangerous predator on board.
I had been under the impression that this was some kind of magical realism, and that the tiger somehow remains peaceful and does not attack Pi. In fact, the tiger is just as dangerous as you would expect the animal to be, and Pi uses the methods of a circus tamer to control him. The majority of the novel is a detailed account of Pi and Richard Parker’s long ordeal in the Pacific.
It is a remarkable, unforgettable story. It’s also really boring and excessively brutal. The first parts of the novel read like an introduction to zookeeping, giving way to a tedious memoir of Pi’s religious epiphanies. On the lifeboat, Pi provides far more detail than you need or want. For example, he lists every single item on the lifeboat, tells us how bored he gets, and describes what positions Richard Parker likes to sleep in.
Even worse (particularly for animal lovers), are all the graphic descriptions of animals in agony. In the section on zookeeping, Pi describes some of the horrible things visitors do to animals, like feeding them food with broken glass in it. The animal brutality in the boat begins with the zebra with the broken leg, whose pain gets infinitely worse when the hyena begins eating it alive – an ordeal that lasts for hours. To survive, Pi captures a variety of marine life (including turtles and sharks) and subjects the reader to descriptions of all their painful struggles. It’s simultaneously dull and repulsive.
There was only one part of his journey that I found truly interesting, because it had an awesome idea featuring millions of meerkats (and they’re just so adorable). But it’s a short-lived experience, and includes a scene where Pi’s feet are burning so he slaughters two meerkats and pours their blood over his feet in an attempt to soothe them. What an asshole. By the end of the book I was thoroughly bored and fed up. Pi, I thought, was a horrible little shit and the only reason I hoped he might live was to help the tiger survive. I mentally added Life of Pi to the list of books I can’t believe so many people like.
But now I must confess that, when I reached the very end, Yann Martel surprised me, and for that I had to give the book some grudging admiration. My philosophy is that you should finish the books you start, or at least not judge books you haven’t finished, because you never know how they might turn out. While most books fail to redeem themselves after bad beginnings, Life of Pi is one of the few that makes me glad to have that philosophy.
At the beginning, it’s introduced as a story that “will make you believe in God” (to which I obviously rolled my eyes). Contrary to my expectations however, Pi’s ordeal is not what’s intended to convert you, or reaffirm your beliefs. Nor is his belief in multiple religions necessarily intended to inspire. Instead, he gives you a reason at the very end, and it completely changed the book for me.
It wasn’t a profound reason for believing in God. It wasn’t even a good one, although it explained how Pi was able to believe in multiple religions. In fact, it was one of the very reasons I’ve rejected religion and don’t make God (or gods) a part of my life. More importantly, it didn’t change the fact that the story I’d just read was still extremely tedious. But I liked it because it made me pause to think about the book, and because it partly redeemed a novel that I thought was irredeemably crap. It doesn’t save the book, but it’s something.
Later, I started thinking of an alternative interpretation for the novel, largely because Pi’s reason for believing in God is so poor. It’s more like an argument against religion, which made me wonder if Martel wasn’t being ironic when he wrote that this story would “make you believe in God”.
As a flawed character and an unreliable narrator, Pi himself stands as a strong argument for this interpretation. I found him to be very arrogant and condescending, particularly when he sneers at non-believers for rejecting religion, but misunderstands their reasons. There’s also a point where he compares himself to the persecuted prophet Mohammed, just because kids are calling him names at school.
At the same time, he seemed like such a dope, falling for every lofty promise and sly ploy of religion, while glossing over or completely ignoring the more uncomfortable aspects, particularly the fact that religions condemn each other. He sees only the rosiest version of things in order to satisfy his obsession with loving God.
But despite Pi’s great love for religion, it plays a small role in his survival story. He makes prayer a part of his daily routine on the lifeboat, and every now and then he thanks one of the gods for his good fortune, but he doesn’t actually reflect on his religions as much as you’d expect. He suffers through a uniquely tragic and arduous experience that leaves him alone with his thoughts for hundreds of long hours, so it’s implausible that he doesn’t think about it in terms of the religions he loves so much. Why doesn’t he ask the obvious questions of why God or the gods allowed this to happen to him, whether it’s a test and what he should do about it? His ordeal has virtually no effect on his belief, either positive or negative, and this seems highly unlikely.
Instead he describes all the pain the animals go through, which makes even less sense when you recall that Pi starts out as a vegetarian. The suffering itself raises that old question of why there is so much unnecessary pain in a world supposedly created and controlled by a good, loving deity. The best place to ask this is when the zebra remains alive while the hyena chews through its organs. The horror of this adds absolutely nothing to the narrative, which could just be bad storytelling or Martel’s attempt to make a point about suffering.
Pi also claims that he’s “not given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals”, which soon proves to be a lie when he states how he does exactly that for his own amusement. Later he lectures us on his hatred for the hyena, declaring it to be an ugly, vile creature by judging it according to human standards.
When a person like this gives us his reason for believing in God, I’m more inclined to reflect on the pitfalls of belief and the nature of believers than to take him at his word. Nevertheless, when Pi gives us that poor reason for believing in God (or possibly the novel’s reason for rejecting God or religion) I have to grant him – and the book – some grudging respect, having finally reached a satisfying understanding of his beliefs.
So, I find myself still at odds about Life of Pi. I’m very glad I read it but I didn’t enjoy reading it. It’s both unforgettable and terribly boring. Martel could have cut a hundred pages and still made his point, but he still gave me something to think about, and I really enjoyed thinking about it. Does that make it a good book? I don’t know. Maybe just not good enough.