Life of Pi by Yann Martel


I read this book several weeks ago, but I’ve let myself get a long way behind on these posts. I’m writing this in one go without revision, so it’s not my clearest of reviews.

You know the story by now, seeing as it’s become an Oscar-winning movie: Pi Patel, son of an Indian zookeeper, is emigrating to Canada when the ship he and his family are on sinks, leaving him floating across the pacific in a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Life of Pi comes in three parts, and the large middle part is the story of the boy at sea. Before that, though, you have Pi’s life story up until the voyage – the reason behind his name, Piscine Molitor Patel, his experiences at school, his upbringing at the zoo, and his unusual decision to become a practising follower of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity simultaneously. And then there are the talks about animals, about keeping them, feeding them, about why an animal is happy in a zoo, and why they do not try to escape. Much of the early part, and some of the main part, of the book is spent establishing a basis for us to believe the unlikely story of how he survived for two hundred and twenty-seven days on a boat with a Bengal tiger.

And that’s the key to this novel, really – he has to sell to us this fantastic story, this idea that a man can live in an enclosed space with a starving tiger and not be eaten, so he spends this time telling us all the reasons why he could do so.

To be perfectly honest, I found some of these early chapters a bit of a chore, and struggled to keep myself going at times. It was all very interesting, but not all that compelling.

The better part of the novel is found in the first few days at sea. He is not at first alone on a lifeboat with a tiger: to begin with, he believes the tiger to have jumped overboard, but the boat is home to a wounded zebra, a hyena, and soon an orangutan. The tension as these creatures interact on the boat, while Pi has evicted himself onto a makeshift raft, is not badly done, although it does get a little gruesome. Once these animals are dealt with, however, it is just Pi and the tiger, which bears the unlikely name of Richard Parker.

(Martel attempts to toy with us somewhat with this name. In the first section of the book he does not say that it is a tiger at all, in order to build some mystery over this person that is mentioned so often. It all feels a little gimmicky when you already know the trick.)

The book then settles in to the long story of the days at sea, interspersed with more recollections from Pi’s childhood. Martel manages to be pretty convincing in the level of detail of how the boy survives, and it can be quite compelling at times. This whole part culminates in an even more fantastic scenario than simply the existence of a tiger aboard the lifeboat, when he reaches (bear with me) a floating island of carnivorous seaweed populated by meerkats. It’s the kind of thing to stretch credulity to its limit, but is depicted in the same vivid detail as the rest of the journey at sea so that you want to accept that this could have happened.

The final section of the novel is the shortest. It takes place after Pi has returned to land, and takes the form of a transcript of an interview of Pi Patel by men representing the insurance company for the boat that sank.

If you’ve seen some of the reviews and praise for Life of Pi, you may have encountered the claim that this is a book that could “make you believe in god”. It is in this final section where Martel presents his thesis: Having given us the story of the boy and the tiger, he presents an altogether different take on the events. The suggestion, it seems, is that either of these stories could be true – and that the person hearing the tale will choose to believe “the better story”.

I have a number of issues with this ending. Firstly, most obviously, is the claim that the book could “make you believe in god”. The book makes no real attempt to do so. Pi’s spirituality is shown to us, but it never seems to be brought to a level that is significant to his survival on the boat. The (apparent) final argument of the novel does not argue that god exists, but merely suggests that one should believe in god because it is the better story, regardless of whether it is true – a detail that handily undermines the attempted argument.

The second is in the writing of the second story. I have a suspicion that Martel was aiming for a shocking twist with the rather brutal second tale, however the story comes across as even more over-the-top and unreal than the rest of the novel. It is hard to believe this is anything other than a story intended to sound cold and brutal – but which instead verges on absurd. It’s too neat, too easy, after the first tale.

In all, Life of Pi was not quite the success I had been hoping for. A slow beginning and a solid middle, falling down somewhat in the end. I can’t help but feel that the book failed where Yann Martel attempted to be clever and pull one over on the reader. He was at his best when he was simply giving us a fantastic survival tale.

Prior to Life of Pi I had been re-reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and I said before that I had little to share on the subject. I took a break from Earthsea to read this novel, then resumed with Tehanu – which is such a different beast, and so significant, I think I do owe it a post of its own. That will be coming next time I sit down to write a post.

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