I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve had Life of Pi on my TBR pile for several years now, long before it was optioned for a movie. The book was a gift from my brother, which he gave to me because he knew I loved tigers (If you’re not a first time reader of this blog, I may have mentioned this fact a couple of times). However, it is precisely because of this love for the animal that I chose to save it for later so that I could savor the feeling of looking forward to reading it longer. After the long wait, it turns out it was every bit as good as I had imagined. There is only one word to describe this book, and it is extraordinary.
Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an unusual name, who hails from Ponchiderry India during the time politics was in transition in the country. His middle class family, fearing radical changes that would affect them, decides to move to Canada in search of a better life. But the trip that was supposed to herald a brighter tomorrow for the Patels, quickly becomes tragic as their ship encounters a major mishap. Piscine, who has christened himself Pi after the mathematical figure, barely sixteen years of age, finds himself lost at sea in the company of a young adult Bengal tiger with the unusual name of Richard Parker for 227 days, on the sole lifeboat that escaped the accident.
Surviving the shipwreck and outwitting the tiger to stay alive is just one part of the Pi’s story. More than his ordeal at sea, the story also focuses on his early life, his discovery and appreciation of religion (which led him into choosing it as one of his majors in his eventual stay at the University of Toronto), and his experiences that eventually helped him deal with tragedy and contributed to his success. Each page is filled with wit and honesty, which makes for an entertaining account of Pi’s mishaps, his triumphs and his other shenanigans, with varied results.
Aside from having a tiger in the lead, my favorite part of the book was the actual storytelling. What struck me the most about author Yann Patel’s writing was his sheer talent in providing clear and detailed descriptions of the surroundings, of the people, the culture, the atmosphere. Readers can’t help but feel like they’ve stepped into 1960s India with each of Pi’s accounts. This, I think, aids readers in imagining the beauty of the setting, and helps give them an insight into the personalities and actions of the characters. The descriptions are just so vivid that the story just seems to leap from the pages and grabs the readers’ attention, no questions asked.
I especially liked Martel’s style of injecting tidbits of facts about the animals in the zoo in the first person narration, doing it so casually that it just becomes part of the narrative’s appeal. I thought the manner in which explanations about animal behavior were incorporated into Pi’s dialogues, (which later on helped him deal with his ordeal), his experiences in finding God, his dealings with his family, all contribute somewhat to main bulk of the story, and makes readers connect with each character, human or otherwise, on a deeper level. Readers feel an affinity for them, as Martel makes them care about what happens to each and every one. The rhinoceros and the goat, the snake and the mice, the tiger and the goat, the tiger and the hyena are just some of the standout stories that added more meat to Pi’s growing up years. Also of note is the author’s ability to shift Patel’s style of narration, from a wide eyed child to a cynical survivor, which is quite impressive.
I loved Life of Pi because one can’t help but like Pi and Richard Parker, as first adversaries, and later as allies. Pi is a strong character with his fair share of weaknesses. And in his storytelling, he acknowledges his imperfections. Richard Parker, on the other hand, has everything going for him, unfortunately, despite his advantage in size and hunting skills, he too has imperfections – his pride and his inability to deal with his seasickness. These flaws are actually what makes these two characters so endearing. I must admit that while they were on the lifeboat, I was constantly worrying about them, wanting to read quicker so that I would get to see what happens to this unlikely duo. I liked that there were parts of the story that highlighted their differences while there were also parts that focused on their similarities, which provided the balance in the tone of the book. However, I liked their moments of quietness the best, when both are not trying to assert supremacy, but just acknowledging the presence of the other amid the loneliness at sea. Half of the time, I was trying to think of ways for them to survive with the limited tools available on the lifeboat. This was quite an engaging segment of the book.
Personally though, I’m not sure if the last chapter was a stroke of genius or a miscalculation. On the one hand, it gets readers to rethink their impression about the earlier chapters so it kind of pushes them to revise their perspective. On the other, it plants a seed of doubt on what actually happened on the boat that some of the magic loses its luster. I guess in the end, this would depend on the reader, which ending (the philosophical or the fantastical) he would choose to bring with him.
Still, for me, last chapter or no, I still felt that Life of Pi was an excellently written piece, which mixes the profound with the trivial, which entertains yet urges questions, and inspires people to become like Pi, who had the courage to write his own story and dictate his own destiny in the face of tragedy. All this he has managed to accomplish simply because he did not give up and he dared. It also encourages readers to walk in Pi’s shoes (although he only had shoes in the beginning) and reflect on their own lives, their own faith and their own philosophies. It gives readers a chance to step out of the box and ask what if?
All in all, Life of Pi was an exhilarating read, a suspenseful adventure, and a moving tale that urges reflection and deep thought. It was, in a word, excellent. I would read this again for sure just to spend more time with the oddly named duo of Pi and Richard Parker. But for now, its time to see how Ang Lee’s movie fares against its literary counterpart.