Anita recommended this book to me years and years ago, probably shortly after it came out in 2001. There were multiple reasons why I ignored her for a while. First, the story seemed dumb. A boy on a lifeboat with a tiger? Come on. Second, it was about a boy. An Indian boy. Back then I had little time for books about people different from me, and also for books written by people different from me. I’m actually embarrassed to admit this literary prejudice that I had. It actually continued for years and didn’t stop until my boss started handing me books. By men. About men. About men from foreign countries. That take place in foreign countries. And it was then that I learned the joy of reading for pleasure and education at the same time. Oh and one more reason why I avoided Life of Pi like the plague for the first eleven years of its existence: it was too damn popular. Yes. This from the person who ran out and bought Bridget Jones’s Diary in hardcover. This Man Booker Prize winning novel, this extraordinary experiment, was too popular. It was too present on the front tables at Borders. Surely any book this popular isn’t worth my time. I didn’t want to be seen reading something everyone else is reading. I am such a fool sometimes.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Life of Pi. No, wait. One more other thing first. I read Yann Martel’s second novel, Beatrice and Virgil, late last year. I am sad to say it did not impress me. It was odd. And somewhat off-putting. And possibly I plain didn’t get it. But at that time I thought to myself, “I’ve read this, but I still haven’t read Life of Pi. What is wrong with me?” I could tell that Martel was a talented writer and that surely I would enjoy something else he had written, just not that particular something. And that was when a kernel of an idea took root in my head. That idea is now known as “Anitober.” So let’s get to it, shall we?
I feel like every time Anita and I have discussed books over the years Life of Pi has come up. It usually goes like this: Anita says she really loved it. She asks me if I’ve read it. I say no. She says I really should because I would love it. I say I know, I will someday. I know that at one point or another I mentioned the whole “it’s too popular to read, I’m an alternative reader” argument. But she kept mentioning it. And I kept thinking of her whenever I walked past a copy in Borders or wherever. Finally a year or two ago I broke down and bought a copy of it. And then the conversation changed to Anita gently reminding me that I really should read Life of Pi. This went on for years. I am really stubborn when I want to be.
I was surprised when I started Life of Pi at how much of it takes place before the shipwreck that lands Pi Patel alone in a lifeboat with a 450-plus pound male Bengal tiger. My impression of the book was always that the whole thing happened on the lifeboat. But no! There are almost a hundred pages of pre-lifeboat action. I had a harder time with that section, if only because I was not expecting it. In this section we see what Pi Patel’s life was like as the younger of two sons of the owner of the Pondicherry Zoo. We learn the origin of his name: his full name is Picscine Molitor Patel; he is named after a beautiful swimming pool in France, so named because it was the favorite pool of a dear family friend, who taught Pi how to swim. Obviously Pi was a better option, as when he was young “Piscine” quickly turned into “Pissing.” Kids can be such assholes. Pi also details his spiritual life in Part One. He is born Hindu, but also learns about Islam and Christianity (Catholicism, in particular). For a period of time he considers himself Hindu, Muslim, and Catholic. This passage is interesting, and hits the figurative nail on the figurative head as to why this works for Pi, “Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims (p. 50).” These religions probably have more in common at their cores than is different. It’s just the people who follow them that have made such a huge mess of things. That mess is demonstrated in the novel when all of Pi’s different religious mentors run into each other. It’s a mess. But kind of funny. From pages 67 to 69, here are some things the various holy men say to each other: The Christian priest asks the Muslim imam, “’Where’s God in your religion? You don’t have a single miracle to show for it. What kind of religion is that, without miracles?’” To which the Muslim imam says, “’It isn’t a circus with dead people jumping out of tombs all the time, that’s what! We Muslims stick to the essential miracle of existence. Birds flying, rain falling, crops growing—these are miracles enough for us.’” The priest says, “’Feathers and rain are all very nice, but we like to know that God is truly with us.’” The imam says, “’Is that so? Well, a whole lot of good it did God to be with you—you tried to kill him! You banged him to a cross with great big nails. Is that a civilized way to treat a prophet?” The Hindu pandit, not to be left out of the conversation, says that with their one God “’Muslims are always causing troubles and provoking riots. The proof of how bad Islam is, is how uncivilized Muslims are.’” To which the imam replies, “’Says the slave-driver of the caste system. Hindus enslave people and worship dressed-up dolls.’” And it continues. I just know there is more to the religious aspect of this book than the humorous interaction of these pillars of their respective religious communities. One reviewer on goodreads.com said that Pi just seems to stop talking about religion once the shipwreck happens. But I know that he doesn’t. It’s all there, just waiting for someone smarter than I am to talk about Pi finding God in the ocean or something.
Part One was interesting for all the details of zoo animals provided, but it confused me: is this a novel or is it a non-fiction account of the lives of zoo animals? I don’t know that this section needed to be in the book, especially because looking back there’s no evidence that any of the “information” provided is even true. Did Martel interview zookeepers? Or did he just make it all up? Is “[g]etting animals used to the presence of humans…at the heart of the art and science of zookeeping (p. 39)”? It makes sense to me that it would be. I feel like Yann Martel is sort of an unreliable writer, more than Pi being an unreliable narrator, which I thought initially. Perhaps that is just the nature of post-postmodern literature. You can’t quite believe anything you read and need to infer meaning with thought and blogging. This book is sort of circular, like the logic in The Matrix movies. The more you think, the more confused you get.
The family decides to leave India in 1976, when there was apparently quite a bit of political upheaval in India. I just don’t feel like looking that up on Wikipedia right now. So they sell off what animals they can and plan to move to Canada. In the midst of their journey on a Japanese freighter something happens to the ship. What happens is never made clear, as our narrator is not omniscient and was merely a passenger. A passenger who is unceremoniously tossed overboard by crewmembers when the ship begins to sink. Pi relates, “One of the men interrupted me by thrusting a life jacket into my arms and shouting something in Chinese. I noticed an orange whistle dangling from the life jacket. The men were nodding vigorously at me. When they took hold of me and lifted me in their strong arms, I thought nothing of it. I thought they were helping me. I was so full of trust in them that I felt grateful as they carried me in the air. Only when they threw me overboard did I begin to have doubts (p. 105).” Fortunately he lands on a lifeboat. Somehow several of the zoo animals on board also end up in the lifeboat, which is strange. Things continue to get stranger, though, and I found myself wondering how much of this is the unhinged mind of someone suffering from dehydration, starvation, and constipation (much is made of defecation in this book, so I thought I should mention it). Pi ends up floating in the Pacific Ocean for 772 days with Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger. The other animals that start out on the lifeboat with them are killed: the hyena kills the zebra and the Orang-utan and the tiger kills the hyena.
I found the sections detailing “life” on the lifeboat truly fascinating; it also made me crave sushi. And the training of Richard Parker was pretty cool, too. Pi is a resourceful young man. I know they say that necessity is the parent of invention, but I don’t know that I would have survived so long. I would have kept trying to pet Richard Parker and he would have bit my arm off.
The two incidents that made minimal sense to me were when Pi “went blind” and met another castaway floating in the ocean who Richard Parker quickly dispenses with. The other part that disturbed me and made me wonder what the hell was going on out there in the ocean, or in Martel’s crazy-ass brain, was the incident with the algae island. There is an island that Pi and Richard Parker come across that seems like a paradise. A paradise with meerkats. Now, I love meerkats as much as the next person. At the San Diego Zoo this summer I took many pictures of them. But I can’t wrap my head around why they turned up here. And why, oh why, is there a carnivorous island in the middle of the ocean? And why does the island not eat the meerkats? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?? I wonder if the carnivorous island is some sort of metaphor for organized religion and the meerkats are the followers of religion?
That this story has a happy ending is amazing to me. But it does. Pi survives, and goes to college, and gets married and has a family. He seems happy and generally sane. The question I have is this: which version of his story is true? The one with the animals or without? Does it matter? I read an interview with Yann Martel from right after he won the Man Booker in 2002, and he said that it’s up to the reader to decide which story to believe. I’m trying to make peace with that explanation. This is not an easy book, though it seems like it would be on the surface. It’s a story of a boy and a tiger and a lifeboat. But it’s so much more. I could keep thinking and typing and rereading parts of the book for many more pages, but I think that I need to move on to something simpler. Like Madame Bovary.