Book Review: Life of Pi
I’m always on the lookout for a good read. Recently a friend recommended Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Harcourt, 2001). Her assessment was accurate: unique, well-written, yet disappointing. It’s a riveting adventure of human resilience in the face of extreme suffering, of faith in our era of religious pluralism.
Pi Patel, the 16-year-old son of an Indian zoologist, is shipwrecked in the Pacific while transporting part of the zoo’s collection to North America. He is the only human survivor, but he is not alone. For the next seven months, Pi shares his lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker in a not-quite-plausible but fascinating face-off of wills. Relying on his father’s training, the boy establishes himself as the alpha male, and with his terrifying companion faces starvation, storms, and man-eating islands.
Martel writes a clever story. The choice of his character’s nickname (as in the symbol for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) is characteristic of his style. Pi often reflects on his insignificance in the seemingly eternal expanse of rolling sea: “To be a castaway is to be a point perpetually at the centre of a circle. However much things may appear to change—the sea may shift from whisper to rage, the sky might go from fresh blue to blinding white to darkest black—the geometry never changes. Your gaze is always a radius. The circumference is ever great. In fact, the circles multiply. To be a castaway is to be caught in a harrowing ballet of circles.”
Above all, the tale is one of faith. “It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw,” Pi declares early in the book, “but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
Pi chooses to believe, but he never grounds that faith in doctrine. In India, he had simultaneously practiced Hinduism, Christianity and Islam—to the consternation of all of his religious leaders. “I just want to love God,” he insists when they demand he choose a particular path to God. During his ordeal, he alternately cries out to Vishnu, to Muhammed, to Christ. The survival manual he protects from the elements instructs him to use the night sky as a compass, but the sailor who wrote it assumes so much sea-faring experience on the part of his reader that Pi finds the admonition useless. As he drifts across the open sea unable to direct his course, Pi is spiritually afloat with no doctrine to guide him to safety. His story compels you to choose faith over doubt, but faith in what?
When the Pacific currents finally deliver Pi to the coast of Mexico, his rescuers are skeptical of his account. At their insistence, he tells an alternate version—one equally horrifying but more believable, with human companions rather than animals. Suddenly we are faced with a dilemma: which version of the story are we to believe? The one we experienced with Pi as he slowly lost his grip on reality, or the briefly-recounted, easier-to-imagine one? “You can’t prove which story is true and which is not,” Pi says. “You must take my word for it.” He concludes, “And so it goes with God.” Martel’s message is that the content of faith is not important to God, just the act of seeking.
The majority of the book is told in the first person, but the final pages shift unexpectedly to a short transcript of a recorded interview between Pi and shipping company representatives. After spending 227 excruciating days with Pi, the shift in narration is a letdown. “What a terrible thing to botch a farewell,” Pi acknowledges, when Richard Parker disappears unceremoniously into the Mexican jungle at the end of their journey. “It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go.” I found it hard to let go of this story after this disappointing conclusion.
Martel’s comparisons of religious philosophy and zoology are insightful, and his description of lightning at sea is breathtaking. Life of Pi is worth the read for many reasons, but readers would be well-advised not to view it as a spiritual survival manual.