Book Reviews

Life of PI – Yann Martel

I have never fallen in love with a book before as I have with Yann Martel’s Life of PI. When I was a kid, I had tried to read it but found the language too tiresome, too complicated. Recently, I received as a birthday present a limited edition illustrated copy of this wonderful book and I must say I devoured it much like the tiger attacked the hyena.
This is the story of a castaway, of the lone survivor of a shipwreck that stayed alive on the sea for over 7 months. And all of it in the enclosure of a young male tiger weighing 450 pounds.
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//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Pi Patel is the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India. He was given the full name of Piscine Molitor after a Parisian swimming pool frequented by a family friend. But when kids at school took to calling him Pissing, he shortened it to Pi, that familiar figure for the ratio of a circle’s circumference divided by its diameter.

“And so in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge.”

Pi’s parents are secularists with no interest in religion. This teenager, who is a Hindu, finds himself also attracted to Christianity and Islam. Although he thinks that Jesus’ ministry can’t hold a candle to the exotic adventures of Hindu gods, his message of love seems very important. He begins to meet regularly with a Catholic priest and soon asks to be baptized. Pi finds Islam to be “a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.” After meeting a Sufi mystic in the market, he puts a prayer rug in the garden facing Mecca and prays five times a day. However, once the local leaders of each religion discover what he is doing, they try to convince Pi that he must choose one over the others. But this ardent teenager refuses to give up his multifaith path of loving God.

“I left town and on my way back, at a point where the land was high and I could see the sea to my left and down the road a long ways, I suddenly felt I was in heaven. The spot was in fact no different from when I had passed it not long before, but my way of seeing it had changed. The feeling, a paradoxical mix of pulsing energy and profound peace, was intense and blissful. Whereas before the road, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun all spoke differently to me, now they spoke one language of unity. Tree took account of road, which was aware of air, which was mindful of sea, which shared things with sun. Every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbour, and all was kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the centre of a small circle, coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman had met Allah.”

When Pi’s father decides to leave India and move to Winnipeg, Canada, he closes the zoo and arranges to distribute its inhabitants to other facilities. The family and some of the animals board a Japanese cargo ship. Then the unexpected happens, and the boat sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Pi makes it to a lifeboat where his only companions are a zebra, a hyena, a orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The Orangutan

Orange-JuiceMany of Pi’s mother’s traits appear in Orange Juice, though magnified. In Part 2, Orange Juice floats up to the lifeboat bathed in the otherworldly glow of The Perfect Mother:

She came floating on an island of bananas in a halo of light, as lovely as the Virgin Mary. The rising sun was behind her. Her flaming hair looked stunning. (2.42.1)

Orange Juice certainly doesn’t have the self-possession of Richard Parker. Nor does she have the cunning of Pi. She does bring warmth, radiance and an awareness of the tragedy that’s just occurred, even if that awareness manifests itself only in shock. When Pi peeks over the tarpaulin at Orange Juice, he notices she’s seasick, like him. It’s almost as if Orange Juice takes on the burden of their collective seasickness, and bears that load. This is not to say Orange Juice is simplistically kind. She does display courage and strength – and a certain amount of ferocity. She thumps the hyena on the head. Her fear, however – and the fact that she’s outmatched – prevents her from killing the hyena. The hyena grabs a hold of her wrist and then her throat. lunar1a

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Orange Juice functions as the kind, warm character caught up in the violence of the lifeboat. We think she’s courageous but ultimately hampered by a lack of ruthlessness. She doesn’t last long – and so reminds Pi that fear paralyses and has to be avoided.

The hyena

Life_of_Pi__Struggle_by_BiffnoIf there’s anything like pure evil in Life of Pi, it comes in the form of the hyena, who, in Pi’s second version of his experiences at sea, is the cook. In a way, it’s much more understandable in the form of the hyena. It’s a vicious animal and so it shouldn’t surprise us that the hyena would eat a zebra and kill an orang-utan. Its cowering (putting the zebra between itself and Richard Parker) doesn’t seem like cowardice: rather, it seems like something hyenas just do. When the hyena tears into Orange Juice’s throat, we despise the animal, but it not as an individual with choices. Rather, we have something like disgust at the species.

When the hyena transforms into the cook in Pi’s second story, his ugly actions plumb the depths of human evil. How could anyone do such a thing? The cook makes the second story horrific, more than anything else. We can no longer explain the cook’s savagery the same way we explained the hyena’s killings. Whereas before we could say, “It’s a hyena. That’s what hyenas do,” we cannot now say, “Oh, he’s human. That’s what humans do.”

The Zebra

LOP.0002The zebra has a broken leg and it suffers. In the second (animal-less) story told by Pi, the zebra is a chinese soldier whose leg is needlessly amputated by the cook to use as fishing bait. The zebra, in the story with animals, breaks his leg jumping onto the lifeboat only for the hyena to tear off the limb. Really, the hyena eats the zebra alive, and Richard Parker finishes the job. The sailor is on the receiving end of grave injustice.

Perhaps Martel uses the sailor and zebra to remind us that savagery has a devastating effect on others. It sounds simple, but the sailor and zebra suffer so much and so gruesomely we can’t help but see them as images of suffering. After the cook amputates the sailor’s leg, the sailor “kept looking at the limb, as if imploring it to return” (3.99.248). Doesn’t extreme violence irreparably disable others?

We pity the sailor and zebra: they suffer bravely. And they do illuminate other characters: the cook and hyena visit extreme violence on them and we see the evilness of those two. Pi, in some ways, doesn’t protect the sailor from the cook and this magnifies his guilt. Pi’s mother gives the sailor water to drink and does all she can to defend him, which emphasizes her maternal kindness.

Richard Parker

Depending on which of Pi’s stories you believe, Richard Parker is either a real tiger or he’s simply a very developed figment of Pi’s imagination. But whichever one you choose – the story with animals, the story without, or even both at the same time – we think it’s illuminating to read about these characters side by side. And to at least entertain the possibility that Richard Parker is nothing more than an imaginative extension of Pi. And if your brain melts trying to believe in both stories at the same time, I apologize.

“It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names.”

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“Richard Parker was so named because of a clerical error.”

Richard Parker sulks a lot. Early on in the lifeboat, Pi doesn’t even see Richard Parker since he’s hiding under the tarpaulin. Other times, Richard Parker hides from the wind and sun in his lair. We’re not sure if we would consider Richard Parker, when he does come out to play, a very good conversationalist. But isn’t God silent – in the writings of the mystics – for long stretches? (Martel researched these writings for the book.) Also, wasn’t God silent during Christ’s time on the cross? Perhaps Richard Parker, like a personal god in any number of religions, receives some characteristics from the very care Pi lavishes on him.

Richard Parker’s silence also gives him an air of distance – a nobility and independence he might not have otherwise. He is, admittedly, totally dependent on Pi for food and water. Granted, Richard Parker does communicate through action: his violence and the simple grace of his body. He does purr once and growl occasionally, but for the most he’s what we call “the silent type.”

There are a few times when we’re unavoidably reminded of the fact that Richard Parker is an animal. Late in the book, he kills all those cute little meerkats. Clubs them, slashes them. Kills them by the scores. At times, Pi catches Richard Parker sizing him up. Not only is this cat mean, he’s cunning. He swallows a rat whole. He also swallows flying fish and kills a shark:

Richard Parker turned and started clawing the shark’s head with his free front paw and biting it with his jaws, while his rear legs began tearing at its stomach and back. […]. Richard Parker’s snarling was simply terrifying. (2.79.6)

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At times, we see Richard Parker bloodied from his feasts. Pi cleans out the bones from Richard Parker’s lair and the excrement. At an early point on the algae island, after significant hardship endured together, Richard Parker runs at Pi with “the rapid and direct approach of a known killer” (2.92.37). Savage indeed.

The journey

Throughout his journey, Pi practices religious rituals — “solitary Masses without priests or consecrated Communion hosts, darshans without murtis, and pujas with turtle meat for prasad, acts of devotion for Allah not knowing where Mecca was and getting my Arabic wrong.” But these provide a stay against despair and loneliness and his grief for his lost family. The worst enemy is fear. He observes:

“It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then, fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy.”

One of the things that makes Life of Pi such an extraordinary read is that it covers so many fascinating subjects with aplomb. Martel provides overviews of animal behavior, survival at sea, the limits of reason, and a boy’s coming of age. The novel is a work of spiritual adventurism, a expression of mystical awareness, and a salute to the ample powers of imagination and the versatility of storytelling. During his long stay aboard the lifeboat with the tiger, Pi notes: “My greatest wish — other than salvation — was to have a book. A long book with a never-ending story. One I could read again and again, with new eyes and a fresh understanding each time. Alas, there was no scripture in the lifeboat.”

This ambitious novel is stuffed with ideas, interesting people, and exciting situations. Each reader could spend quite a bit of time pondering the spiritual implications of the deep relationship that develops between Pi and Richard Parker over the course of their confinement together. At first, the teenage is scared out of his wits that the animal will eat him. Then he tries to keep the tiger happy with food, fresh water, and regular routines. The final level of their interaction is a surprise that will only startle those who haven’t had the delight of close mystical relationships with animals.

Life of Pi is a multileveled exploration of the beautiful mysteries that light up our lives and have no rhyme nor reason of their own. Yet without them, we would be nothing more than wonder-deprived creatures.

The ending

“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”

Pi’s adventure concludes in a Mexican hospital bed – where he is interviewed by a pair of Japanese Ministry of Transport officials. The agents tell Pi that his story – which includes multiple animal companions and a carnivorous island – is too unbelievable for them to report, so Pi tells them a different version of the story: one that paints a much darker and emotionally disturbing variation of events. After both stories have been shared, Pi leaves it up to the viewer (or reader) to decide which version they “prefer.”

Facing the final question, it can be easy to forget that, from the outset, The Writer character was promised a story that would make him believe in God. In the first part of the narrative, we see Pi struggling to reconcile the differences between faith interpretations (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam) – acknowledging that each of them contained valuable elements, even if they tell different stories (elements that together help him survive his ordeal at sea regardless of whether or not he was there with a tiger).

As a result, the larger question is impossible to answer definitively and, as mentioned, the “truth” of Pi’s story is of little concern to Martel or Lee. The real question is – which story do you, the viewer/reader prefer? Interpretation is subjective but the question is intended to serve as a moment of theological reflection. Are you a person that prefers to believe in things that always make sense/things that you can see? Or are you a person that prefers to believe in miracles/take things on faith? There are no right or wrong answers – just an opportunity for introspection.

“I’ve never forgotten him. Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love. Such is the strangeness of the human heart. I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once. The pain is like an axe that chops my heart. ”

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