Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
I read this book because it was highly recommended by a co-worker. Overall, I thought it was very good. It was an easy and enjoyable read that I was able to finish on a Saturday afternoon while enjoying a cup of coffee. In summary, the book is about a young boy who gets stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean. To survive, the boy learned to tame and live alongside a ferocious tiger. The book opens by briefly describing the boy’s childhood and upbringing. For example, the boy is referred to as “Pi” but his given name is Piscine Molitor Patel. For too long, the boy was called “Pissing” or other inappropriate names in school, because the students and teachers did not know how to correctly pronounce “Piscine.” To combat the name calling, the boy decided to give himself the name “Pi” at the beginning of one given school year... and it worked! Everybody began to call him Pi, and other students even began to adopt names such as Gamma, Beta, and Alpha. In the beginning of the story, Pi also talks about his father, who was a zookeeper, and what it was like going to the zoo all the time. Most significantly, Pi recalls one day when his father took him and his brother to see the tiger. Turns out that the father was withholding food from the tiger for several days so that he could demonstrate the tiger’s ferocity to the boys. When father released some prey into the cage, the tiger mutilated it. The boys were impressed and even disgusted with the tiger’s power. They learned that all of the animals in the zoo can be dangerous and that the animals need to be respected, none more so than the tiger. Another important part of Pi’s childhood was religion. He wanted to study different religions and learn truth; so, he studied Christianity, Hinduism, Catholicism, Islam, and Muslim. In a great moment of coincidence, Pi’s teachers of Christianity, Hinduism, and Muslim all met one another at the zoo. The encounter was awkward, because the teachers all agreed that a person can only practice a single religion. But can we study multiple religions? To end the religious confrontation, father bought his boys ice cream.
After telling us about his childhood at the zoo, Pi tells the reader about his biggest adventure, which consumes a majority of the novel. Father sold his zoo animals and decided to move his family across the Pacific Ocean, from India to Canada. In a moment of ingenious literary foreshadowing, Pi says, “And two animals were being shipped to the Canada Zoo. That’s how Ravi and I felt.”
When the ship unexpectantly sinks, Pi described his situation as being alone on a lifeboat with a hyena, wounded zebra, orangutan, and tiger. The hyena quickly killed the zebra and orangutan. Then, the tiger killed the hyena. Thus, only Pi and the tiger, named Richard Parker, existed on the lifeboat. Over time, Pi learned how to collect fresh water, harvest sea turtles, and catch fish. When Pi discovered the survival kit onboard the raft, he was elated. However, the available provisions were limited, and during his time on the raft, Pi experienced many tough moments when food and water were scarce. Not only did Pi face death from the elements, lack of victuals, and dehydration, he also faced the challenge of living with a tiger. Using his creativity and intelligence, Pi was able to partially tame Richard Parker. He could punish the beast by using a loud whistle and rocking the boat. Similarly, Pi could befriend the beast by offering it food and fresh water. Perhaps, Pi’s largest challenge was taming the ferocious beast. Some significant events that occurred while at sea include the time when Pi discovered an acidic floating island, and the time when Pi met a second blind person while he himself was temporarily blinded from lack of nutrition. The boy’s attempt to survive, separated from civilization, equipped only with a few survival tools and a far from ideal companion, reminded me heavily of “Robinson Crusoe,” which is a fictional tale about a boy stranded on a remote island who faced death at every corner. Like Pi, Crusoe was also rescued after an extended and agonizing time alone. While reading “Life of Pi,” I couldn’t help but think it was nothing more than a modern variation of “Robinson Crusoe” albeit a well-written variant.
The ending of the book is phenomenal, and it is something special. After reading the ending, I realized that this book is not simply a re-work of “Robinson Crusoe.” “Life of Pi” is much more. It raises many questions about the legitimacy of Pi’s story and the role of stories in general. After returning to civilization and being questioned by two Japanese interrogators, Pi tells a different story. While stranded on the Pacific Ocean, he did not cohabitate with a tiger, orangutan, hyena, and zebra. Instead, he was stranded on the lifeboat with his mother, the cook, and a young sailor. The cook was a vicious, nasty human being, who was responsible for the deaths of Pi’s mother and the young sailor. After considering Pi’s second version of the story, the Japanese interrogators deduce that the sailor was the zebra, the mother was the orangutan, and the cook was the hyena. However, it dawns on them that the tiger is unaccounted for, and that the tiger must be Pi. Pi killed and ate the cook. Pi was stranded alone on the raft. Pi’s greatest challenge was battling his inner tiger. Pi concludes by asking the Japanese interrogators which version of the story was the better story. Neither version of the story answered the interrogators’ question of what caused the boat to sink, and neither version of the story can be factually proved. The Japanese men admit that the version of the story with the tiger was the better story. What does this imply about stories? For the sake of entertainment, is it appropriate to exaggerate and embellish? Is it possible that the creative narrative Pi created also helped keep his mind occupied and sane while he was stranded? What parts of Pi’s story were factual, and what parts were embellished story? We will never know. And not knowing makes this a great novel. I think that this novel is worth reading again, and I think that a second reading, after knowing the ending, would be immensely enjoyable.