Book Review: Life of Pi

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi sets its own expectations just four pages into the author’s note, when we’re told that the upcoming tale will be “a story that will make you believe in God”.  While that statement isn’t told specifically to us, the readers, it’s told to our fictional author by a man he meets in India.  Life of Pi, a fictional story, presents itself as reality, with a tale told straightforwardly by one man to our fictional author.  It’s a bold and often unbelievable tale of adventure that doesn’t always connect with its far-reaching ideals, but Life of Pi mostly succeeds.  It won’t change your belief in God, though it will affirm a belief in Martel as a sharp, creative literary mind.

The “Pi” portion of Life of Pi‘s title doesn’t deal with the 3.1415926235 thing – at least not for more than a page.  (That’s as far as my memory takes me in terms of digits.)  Pi is the name of our protagonist, a teenage boy from Pondicherry, India.  He develops a keen interest in religion and zoology – two slightly atypical fields for a child to conquer.  In one early sequence, Pi becomes a Catholic, Hindu and Muslim within a relatively short span, leading to an amusing scene where leaders from each religion meets with Pi’s father to express their bewilderment.  Meanwhile, Pi spends his days in his father’s zoo.  In one memorable chapter, he provides a strong argument for why it’s a good things for animals to be caged up in zoos – one of many moments of truthful clarity in a fictional tale.  (Or, perhaps, one exceptionally well-argued lie.  Who knows?)

Eventually, Pi’s family decides to sell the zoo and relocate to Canada.  They leave on a ship with many of the zoo’s animals, ready to traverse the ocean to another continent, and, well…you can guess what happens next.  But in case you can’t –

Wait, no! That’s not what I meant…

…the ship fails, and Pi finds himself alone, save for a few animal companions, on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.  Those companions – a zebra, hyena and orangutan – soon fall prey to the chain of command in the animal kingdom, with a big assist from the other creature on board – an enormous Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  Soon enough, it’s just Pi and Richard Parker on the boat, with the young man desperate to go to any lengths in order to survive.

The time at sea makes up the bulk of Life of Pi, and it makes for frequently interesting reading.  You can’t help but get the sense that Martel himself was once stranded on a raft for months on end, as he answers any survival-based question you could think of.  You won’t have to strain your set of beliefs much, a testament to the strength of Martel’s writing.  Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker is a fascinating one, as well.  It should take a lot to believe that an un-athletic high school student could tame a tiger, but Martel makes it seem clear as day why the relationship works.

Life of Pi‘s far from perfect, though.  There’s not much suspense in the story, because you know Pi’s going to survive eventually.  (And that’s not a spoiler – the whole book is presented as a story told by an older Pi to our author.)  Sure, it’s fun to go on the journey, but it gets mildly exhausting after some time.  Life of Pi‘s not much of a page-turner – once you put the book down, there’s not much of a desire to pick it back up to find out how Pi catches his next fish.

How does he catch it? By trading with Jeffrey Loria, that’s how! Thank you, folks, I’m here all week!

And then there’s the religious aspect.  Martel sends an early barrage of religious speak our way and constantly suggests that there’s some Biblical overtone to the whole ordeal.  Life of Pi‘s a bit heavy-handed and in-your-face about religion, and it doesn’t seem to be too sympathetic to the non-believers.  This isn’t to suggest anything’s wrong with religion – I certainly don’t consider myself a heathen by any means.  Rather, I think Life of Pi would have functioned just fine without our titular character adopting every form of religion under the Sun.

Ultimately, I imagine Life of Pi will jump into a rare group inhabited by No Country For Old Men – the “movie is actually better than the book” club.  Even ignoring the brilliant trailers and reviews for Ang Lee’s recently-release film, Pi seems destined to function as an epic, soaring film.  If the visuals that the book hints at are fully realized on screen, we’re in for something truly special.  As it is, Life of Pi works at times on the page, but it leaves room for improvement.  Let’s hope that Lee and screenwriter David Magee harness that power for the screen.

Grade: B-

Postscript: A friend of mine argued that Life of Pi does not work without the religious aspect.  She claimed, rather strongly, that the story needs religion to be effective and to bring Life of Pi full-circle.  Her argument was a rather compelling one, and it made me reconsider the novel.  If she’s right – and I do believe that was the case – then I suppose, personally, that Life of Pi just did not connect with me.  If I missed the point of the story – and I don’t think Life of Pi is closed to a single interpretation – perhaps I won’t recommended it quite as strongly to others.

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