Monday, October 22, 2018

Booker Book #37: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (2002)

This book is out of order because 1) I listened to it on audio CD, which takes me a lot longer than reading; and 2) I’ve been stewing about it for a few days.

Pi (short for Piscine, which is French for swimming pool, which foreshadows the extraordinary amount of time Pi will spend in the water) is the son of an Indian zookeeper. When the father decides to take his family to Canada, a few animals come with them, headed for new zoos. Unfortunately, their ship sinks.

I think most people who haven’t been living under a rock will not be surprised by this next part, but in case you do have a comfy reading nook with Internet under a wedge of basalt or granite somewhere: surprise! Pi ends up alone on a lifeboat with a tiger. Actually, a tiger, a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena, but boy and tiger are the big winners in this very short game of battle royale.

Now, in order to talk about why I’ve been stewing about this book, I must announce:
THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD. If you don’t want to see them, skip to last paragraph.

You’ve been warned. So, Pi learns how to cohabit on a 30-foot lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. The way he does this is all very interesting and scientific; the youngster has luckily read a lot about zookeeping and circus training. The reason I started this book a few years back and put it down is because I could not swallow Pi’s Pollyanna attitude. He could not stop plugging religion – and not just one faith, but three.

Pi is a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian, and cannot stop praising all his many gods for this and that. Even in Pi’s darkest days, his faith never wavers. I find that completely implausible: that a person tested by seven harrowing months lost at sea with a huge carnivore would never waver in his religious belief. It would not matter to me whether he came through this test with or without his faith intact. An interesting protagonist develops, and we don’t see Pi develop. Like his faith, he simply endures.

Finally, and this is the BIGGEST SPOILER OF THEM ALL (you’ve been warned again), the book strongly implies that the tiger is a metaphor for Pi himself. At the end of the novel, Pi tells a second version of his story in which we can recognize the orangutan, the hyena, and the zebra in three human characters. This is a more blood-chilling and tragic story, because it involves humans struggling together and against each other for survival. It is tragic, and we can definitely understand why Pi would have preferred to live with animals, who can only be accused of acting on instinct when they kill. At first, I felt let down and cheated, because I had failed to see the hidden alter ego. But then I thought of a few great stories that use a similar device that I also didn’t notice: the movie “Fight Club,” the movie “Black Swan” (I’ll refrain from ruining anything else for you rock dwellers who are still reading) and I realized this was really a tour de force, though I still want the part with the tiger to be real.

So, this was a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, I was frustrated by the novel’s religious aspect. On the other hand, the metaphorical twist was clever and unexpected. The story itself is original and replete with fascinating detail. I look forward to seeing what the movie does with this incredible novel.

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