“I have a story that will make you believe in God, ” says a strange Indian man to a Canadian novelist. That is how the latter encounters the unbelievable story of Piscine Patel (or Pi), which he shares from first person point of view in this amazing novel. Life of Pi combines strong believe in God (in all of its forms) with extensive knowledge about animals and zoology. Sounds like the two areas have nothing in common but Martel combines them to create a revolutionary and original novel, one that keeps surprising the reader up until the very end.
Piscine Patel is a young Indian boy, whose parents own a zoo in Pondicherry, India. In the late 1970s, when the political situation is unbearable, the whole family decides to flee its home country on a cargo ship through the Pacific Ocean and into Canada. The cargo ship is like Noah’s ark – Pi’s father is bringing along all of the animals to sell them in the US and in Canada. After the tragic sinking of the ship, the only survivors are Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a Royal Bengal tiger. All trapped on a small solitary lifeboat. That is how Pi’s adventure towards salvation begins.
I was given the book by my roommate. To be honest, when I read the title I had no idea what the book will be about. After all, Life of Pi can be the life of ANY person, animal, or creature. When I read the back cover I was disappointed. It sounded like an adventure story about children, where good overcomes common sense. To be honest, the first couple of pages didn’t change my mind. However, the following ones did. And the end was extraordinary. Definitely got me thinking.
Life of Pi is structured as a story within a story. The narrator (not necessarily Yann Martel) encounters the story when he is visiting India and tells it from Pi’s point of view. Pi’s name, which resembles the irrational number 3.14 is essential to the story; pi is a number that goes on forever without a discernable pattern and is used in the calculation of a circle’s radius and diameter. In the same way, Pi’s life on the lifeboat and his struggle of survival are also irrational; trapped with a tiger the little boy has to overcome all challenges and difficulties while floating without direction or purpose in the Pacific ocean.
Understanding about religion is another part of the novel that attracts attention. Born as a Hindu, the boy is fascinated with Christianity and Islam as well. Confronted by the three religions, Pi refuses to pick just one; for the Indian God is one and he loves all people. This rather liberal understanding of religion is unique to the story; it helps Pi through the difficulties on the lifeboat, it allows him to store his courage and strength and to survive.
I come to the most interesting part of the novel. Pi is rescued and he is telling his tale to Japanese officials of the Ministry of Transport. The boy shares two stories with them – as he refers to them “the one with the animals” and “the one without”. I personally have my opinion about which of the stories is the real one. Faced with the strive for survival, people exhibit their worst characteristics – they become savage, selfish, and ruthless; they rely on their instincts rather than on their feelings. Just like animals, the strongest will survive. My understanding is as follows: Pi chooses to tell his story with symbolic animals – each representing one of the sole survivors of the sunk ship. When the officials claim his story unreal and unbelievable, he tells another one – “without animals”. Whatever the truth is, as Pi points out it doesn’t matter – he has lost his family, he has suffered, but he has survived. Quite brightly, thus, he asks the Japanese officials whether the “animals story” is better than the other one.
The narrator’s point of view is obvious in the following quote – “That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it? The selective transforming of reality?” Life of Pi is a unique and original novel, which has many layers to be explored and discussed. I rarely say that about a book, but I would have definitely loved to have studied it in school. The author’s logic and psychology is so deep and enthralling that I am disappointed to say I feel I only understood a very little part of the novel. Looking like a shallow children’s book on the outside, Life of Pi is a very ADULT (if there is such a definition) novel about the challenges we face in life and the strength and courage needed to overcome them.
I sincerely thank my roommate for sharing this book with me.