The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

This book has been on my vague “Oh, I heard that was good and want to read it” list for ages – since it came out, really. Once his second book came out, I decided that now was as good a time as any to get to it.

It’s an interesting book; hard to categorize. It is, on the surface, about a boy (the “Pi” of the title) who grew up in India, the son of a zookeeper, and who survived a shipwreck during his family’s emigration to Canada. There’s kind of two parts to the book: before the shipwreck and after the shipwreck. The two are sort of nominally connected, through Pi and the animals, but are not really connected in events or themes.

The first half details Pi’s childhood, and especially his  various faiths. He grew up as a Hindu, but over the first section of the book he also becomes a Christian and a Muslim – all three at the same time. There’s also an element of atheism – although scientific rationalism or something like that might be more accurate. Pi definitely believes in God; he just also believes in the validity of evolution. His perspective on religion is that of multiple manifestations. He doesn’t disbelieve most fundamental parts of Christianity and Islam, for example – he believes that Muhammad was the prophet of God, that Jesus died to save the world and then rose again – he just doesn’t ascribe to the part that says “this is the only right way to believe in God.” It’s one of the more troubling aspects of religion in a pluralistic society.

Then the shipwreck happens and, other than a few mentions of God, the religious aspect of the book is completely abandoned, and it becomes about survival. The cargo ship that Pi, his family, and most of their zoo animals are on sinks without a trace. Pi and a few of the animals are the only survivors. There is a hyena, a zebra (quickly dispatched by the hyena), an orangutan (also dispatched by the hyena), and a Bengal tiger (who then kills the hyena). Pi and the tiger (whose name is Richard Parker) sail on in the lifeboat for 227 days before finally landing in Mexico.

The last bit of the book brought up some issues for me. Pi tells his story to some insurance claims agents representing the ship’s company. They don’t believe that he could have survived for so long, especially with a Bengal tiger – so Pi tells them another story that replaces the animal characters with human characters, turning the story that we have just heard into an allegory for the actual, human experiences that he had. There is no way of knowing, for sure, which story is true, and it turns Pi – up until now a fairly reliable narrator or at least not an obviously unreliable narrator – into a blatantly unreliable narrator.  Was there actually a Bengal tiger? The story as it is told seems to say yes. But there are clues scattered throughout that, upon rereading, might point to the human story being the truth and the animal story being Pi’s way of explaining the savagery of the survivors. Clues like those in The Sixth Sense that you take at face value within the story until you know the ending, and then they can easily be read in a different way. I am going to have to reread this book with an eye to these things at some point.

Overall, unfortunately, I was kind of disappointed in this book. I felt like there was a disconnect between the first part of the book (Pi’s religious explorations) and the second (the shipwreck). The twist of Pi as unreliable narrator almost felt like a slap in the face, like a betrayal – I’d trusted him and empathized  with him the whole way through, and I would have liked the chance to do that with the understanding of it as allegory, if it is. Or if it’s not, why pretend that it might be? I don’t know for sure, it just bothered me. And, in a way, it felt like a cheap way to get the reader to read the book again. It put a mystery in at the end, but the solution to the mystery (if there is one) lies before you are aware that there is a mystery to be solved. Maybe it would have been too clichéd or something to flip the book so that the allegorical implication comes at the beginning, but for me it changed the whole tone and idea of the book – after I’d already read through 90% of it with one impression. It doesn’t make the book a lie, but it did feel like a betrayal of my reading experience.

I’m not saying it wasn’t good, though – it was very readable in that “I’m trying to be deep and profound” way that a lot of modern “literary” fiction has. I’m just saying that there were things about it, especially about the structure of it, that I didn’t like.

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