I’d never heard of Life of Pi until my English professor mentioned it to me. She talked about it almost as a curio—”a boy and a Tiger on a boat in the ocean…. and that’s it”—but also with a certain fondness for its religious sentiment. I was slightly worried, going into it, that it would be a schlocky affair, overly maudlin and as subtly allegorical as a boot to the face.
It’s a mixed affair, to be honest. It’s divided into three different sections, which appear to have little to do with each other. The first gives the reader background information on the book’s “hero,” Pi(scine) Patel, a young Indian boy who is deeply religious, but in such a precociously naïve way that he is a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian at the same time, praying to Ganesha and Vishnu, Jesus and Mary, and Allah; he is baptised at the Christian church, he prays towards Mecca on a prayer rug, &c. This state of affairs manages to strike the discerning reader as simultaneously pointless and absurd. The issue culminates in a fight between leaders from the three religions when they find out that young Pi is dabbling in a bit of everything. Martel tries to show how the three religions are all about essentially the same thing (the difference is even less pronounced in Christianity and Islam, which are both Abrahamic religions); at the same time, however, I got the sense that Pi praying in a bunch of different religions was as absurd as it seems: if one’s concept of God is so broad as to eclipse sectarian differences, then the very notion of using religion-specific tropes is just as a silly. When Pi says that he “just want[s] to love God,” he is both ignoring the defining lines of religions and embracing the defining tropes.
This is the part of the book that struck me as saccharine and hard to swallow. Since Pi’s personal growth in the book is a major theme, perhaps this pre-catastrophe Pi is supposed to be a naïf.
Pi relates considerable information about the zoo his father owns, especially the inherent danger of wild animals and their nature. This becomes important for the second part of the book, wherein the Patels are moving to Canada, via a cargo ship, with many of their zoo animals. The ships mysteriously sinks, and Pi is the only human survivor (supposedly), ending up alone on a lifeboat with an orang-utan, a hyena, a wounded zebra, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who is eventually the only animal left. The middle section is the largest, detailing Pi’s 227 at sea, wherein he has to learn how to live with Richard Parker and not be killed, and once the lifeboat’s provisions are depleted, Pi forgoes his vegetarianism and ends up eating raw fish and turtle. Staying hydrated is such a pressing concern that he makes a habit of sucking the fluid from the eyeballs and spinal cords of the fish he catches.
This section is filled with some really gruesome things, heavily at odds with the silly religious panderings of the first section. I have a feeling Martel did this on purpose: there is not very much talk of God anymore, but there is enough to know that Pi still prays to the gods of various religions, and never actually loses his faith. I won’t give away too many details about this middle section, but a fair amount happens in it.
The final (short) part of the book is when Pi is recovering in a Mexican hospital, and relates his story to two Japanese businessmen who are looking into the mysterious sinking of the cargo ship. At this point, Martel throws the plot for a loop when he has Pi relate two stories, the first being the animal-based one that has just been read, and the other involving only humans and a lot of killing and cannibalism: the reader is supposed to choose which one to believe. Ostensibly, the one involving a carnivorous island and the better part of a year alone with a Bengal tiger requires a leap of faith to believe, but leaves one with a warm, gushy feeling, whereas the second story is depressing.
One can see the allegory: on the one hand, we have a story with parallels to Noah’s Ark, informed by discussion of different gods; on the other, there is a more believable story that involves little more than humans, cruelty, and death (Darwinian evolution, perhaps?). Pi’s story isn’t an Allegory-with-a-capital-A, but it clearly tries to weave together a lot of philosophical questions about faith and life. Personally, I found its approach somewhat muddled, and the middle section’s thematic connection was tenuous at best. Plus, I found Pi annoying. His survival was, of course, amazing, but his personality was grating—he was giving the Japanese businessmen little more than one-line pabulum at the end.
This book won the prestigious Booker prize. Proof that critical acclaim isn’t always a fair indication of a book’s quality (in my humble opinion), because I just wasn’t impressed by Life of Pi in the way that I was hoping to be.