Life of Pi – Yann Martel

Harvest Books, 2002
A lot of my reading of “Life of Pi” was informed by my previous reading
of a compendium of shipwreck and survival-at-sea tales last year (see here for a review). That book scooted into the present day and skipped modern tales of being lost at sea, since, it informed us, modern lifeboats are so much more well stocked.
Indeed so. We get a good look at what’s in a modern lifeboat in Yann Martel’s novel, but that doesn’t stop the supplies running out and the despair and hallucinations from setting in. Much of the novel is set in a lifeboat shared by its title narrator and a fully grown Bengal tiger. Pi is a 16 year-old Indian lad who winds up in this predicament after the cargo ship, which was carrying his family, assorted members of his father’s zoo, and himself to Canada to emigrate, sinks in the Pacific.
Before then we learn Pi is a young lad with a passion for religion (he becomes, much to his teachers’ chagrin, a Christian, an Muslim, and a Hindu simultaneously, because he just loves God) and a knowledge of science (mostly zoology, learning in his surroundings).
I expected a religious fable, and while there are elements of that (much more than I’m interested in), the novel never stops being a boys’-own survival tale, with Pi learning to assert himself as the Alpha male on the tiny boat. Much is to be learned about big-cat behaviour, as well as how to kill and eat various sealife. I had also never heard about ‘solar still‘ devices to turn sea water into fresh, until this book.
Near the end, Pi goes temporarily blind, and the book gets weird (and very readable). He meets another lifeboat survivor, who comes to an unfortunate end. Pi lands on a floating island made entirely of fresh-water-making algae, who sole inhabitants turn out to be meerkats.
And the end, after being rescued, Pi offers the Japanese insurance investigators two versions of the same story, one with the tiger and a much more bloody version with nothing but humans. He asks them which story they liked the better, and is told the more unbelievable one, the one with the animals. “So it is with God,” he says. It’s an attack on dull reason (and bloody realism), but the book is at its best when combining the two. (Martel also offers, by doing so, an 11th hour twist that you can take or leave, the opposite of the narrative tactics of recent Hollywood thrillers (such as “Identity.”))
This book has been inescapable in and outside reading groups. Unlike The DaVinci Code, “Life of Pi” is charming and well-written, Martel is able to go with description, interior and exterior, that other writers would probably never consider (especially in the slow disintegration on the boat. I don’t believe Martel ever had to go through such an ordeal, but you believe his character did.)
Here’s an interview with Martel, if you are interested in a little more background.
The book also made me add Pondicherry to my list of future travel destinations, along with a stay at one of the many hill stations in the country.

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