Life of Pi

life of piGiven the recent release of the film version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, you’re probably all familiar with its premise. Young Pi Patel, the son of a zoo owner in Pondicherry, sees no reason he cannot be Christian, Hindu, and Muslim at the same time (“I just want to worship God,” he tells his bewildered parents.) The family decides to escape the civil uproar of 1970s India, and they take a boat with some of their animals from Pondicherry to a new zoo in Toronto. Halfway there, a shipwreck leaves Pi the only human survivor — but he is left on the lifeboat with an orangutan, a wounded zebra, a hyena, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. From then on, Pi must use his faith, his science, and his will to survive in order to live each day with this enormous wild animal, as well as with his own grief, guilt, and loneliness.

I like a high-seas adventure novel as much, or possibly more, than the next girl. And when you add in the psychological stress of taming a tiger, and all the wild-kingdom information that entails, it’s all the better. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Martel made this a book about free will and faith as much as about hunger and urine-splashed boundaries and staring down a 450-pound opponent. When to advance and when to retreat? When to create structure and when to drift in the void? Pi must make these psychological and sometimes metaphysical decisions with Richard Parker and the sea, both utterly physical entities, as his constant companions. This is gripping stuff, light and shadow.

But at the end, after the lifeboat has finally come to shore in Mexico, and Richard Parker has disappeared into the jungle, there’s a final twist. Representatives from the lifeboat company don’t believe Pi’s story, and he knows why: “You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently.” He tells them a new, tiger-free story, one they can believe. Which is the real story? What, in this context, does “real” mean? The true story? The better, more moving story? Which one is which, anyway? The representatives go away chastened, understanding that the better story is the one with the tiger.

Hmmm. I had very seriously mixed feelings about this ending. What, exactly, is Martel saying? All good stories are allegories or parables? All good stories have magic? You could tell a factually true story with no magic in it, but use the same rich description and thrilling language and emotional depth he used in the original story, and still see higher, further, and differently. Try The Worst Journey in the World on for size. No tigers! (But penguins.) Is he saying that stories are necessary for us to survive? Not exactly a new message. Is he saying that by demanding truth, we’re flattening things out for ourselves, making our world pale and uninteresting? That’s sort of a silly message. I fear that, silliest of all, he’s somehow suggesting that faith and reality are incompatible, but I’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt on that score.

I worry that part of this is a question of genre. Perhaps Martel worries his story about faith, free will, a tiger, and the high seas can’t be meaningful unless there’s a vague message at the end, or fears it will be shelved next to Patrick O’Brian and forgotten about. (There are worse fates.) Instead, it won the Man Booker Prize. I guess when it comes to faith, it’s tigers all the way down.

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24 Responses to Life of Pi

  1. I loved the book and also enjoyed the movie – hope u like the movie.

    • Jenny says:

      I doubt I’ll get to see it! With small kids I rarely get to the theater any more. Just whatever’s streaming at home. :) But I’m glad to hear you thought it was good.

  2. Thank you for covering this book. I picked it up some time ago (haven’t seen the movie, either), but have had it sitting on my shelf now for quite a while. Someone told me it was “just young adult fiction,” which isn’t necessarily my thing, so I’ve neglected it for a long time. Your intriguing post makes me want to read it next!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I wouldn’t classify it as young adult fiction at all (I doubt young adult fiction has ever won the Booker, for one thing) but I think questions of genre might have made your friend say that. People are often dismissive about books with animals in them.

  3. heavenali says:

    I avoided this novel for years convinced I’d hate it – of course when I did read it I loved it – I also loved that difficult ambiguous ending. I loved the film too.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m interested that you liked the ending. I think, like Other Jenny below, that it’s been done better elsewhere, and that the book lacked balance. But I did like the tigery bits!

  4. JaneGS says:

    I loved Life of Pi until the ending, and then I felt utterly betrayed by the author. I deal with ambiguity pretty well, and can appreciate it, but like you the ending left me rudderless.

    I haven’t seen the movie, and am not sure if I want to.

    • Jenny says:

      I like ambiguity, too. But this felt more like rug-pulling to me, as if there were a “key” to the book that the reader ought to have been able to figure out (“but it was all a dream!” or something) but had been provided no clues to. And then a lecture on which version, keyed or keyless, was “better.” I didn’t feel betrayed, but I found it annoying. I liked the rest of the book, though!

  5. Oh dear. Younger, impressionable me read Life of Pi and LOVED it, but it was one of those times where a book does something you’ve never seen a book do before and you are like OH MY GOD THIS IS A REVELATION. A Caroline B. Cooney young adult novel rocked my world in a similar manner when I was nine or so, because I didn’t know you could have multiple narrators in the same book. With Life of Pi, I’d never had the experience of a book asking me “Are you sure you know what’s been happening all this time?” and it was magic. But yeah, I realized later that the execution is sort of trite and this whole thing has been done better elsewhere. Alas.

    • Jenny says:

      Yeah, exactly! And since the execution is sort of trite and it’s been done better elsewhere, why did it win a Booker? On the strength of the tiger (which was really quite good)? My husband and I really very rudely call the Booker Prize the Rollings Reliable Prize because of the money behind it and the hit-or-miss nature of the books that win it, and this made me feel that way more than ever.

  6. Teresa says:

    I was so curious as to whether you’d like this. I thought you would because the journey on the boat is so good–and there’s a tiger! Tigers improve anything. But I wasn’t sure what you’d think of the ending. My own reaction is sort of an amalgam of Jane’s and Other Jenny’s.

    When I first read the book, I was so angry at the ending. I felt betrayed, and I assumed he was saying faith is a delusion (which maybe he is) and/or that truth doesn’t matter. I was at a stage of life when Truth (and having the Correct Truth) was all-important, so it made me mad. But with a little distance (and general mellowing out), I got over being mad and decided that it was more interesting–raising the question of whether the truth of our beliefs matter if they enhance our lives. And that is an interesting question, even I don’t entirely agree with the answer Martel seems to offer. I mean, I’d rather have the faith that I have than not have it, even if it isn’t true, I think, but whether it’s true does matter to me. So I stopped being mad at the book, although I’ve seen other authors do this kind of thing in more interesting ways. I don’t think it’s done badly here, other than being a little heavy-handed, from what I remember.

    • Jenny says:

      Here’s the thing about that, though. Whether the tiger is a flesh-and-blood Bengal tiger or a hunger tiger is irrelevant. Those are both “real” tigers, true tigers. One isn’t made up just because it’s a metaphor. “My love is like a red, red rose” doesn’t mean there never was any love. You’re telling a story two different ways, or about two different things, but they can both be true. I don’t really understand his point and I am unconvinced that he understands it either. If he does, he conveys it very poorly. I am always willing to hear about how stories make us who we are, but I didn’t think it was well done.

      However, your point about tigers making everything better is absolutely true, and I really loved nine-tenths of the book, so I don’t want to get too picky here.

      • Teresa says:

        I just don’t think he’s thinking all that deeply about what he’s saying. He raises some interesting questions (truth in metaphor being one of them), but he doesn’t dig that deeply into them.

        I’m guessing this one the Booker because it had a little something to please all audiences. That’s how Booker winners tend to go, from what I can tell–they end up being the books no one on the jury objected to. They’re often reasonably good, but frequently not the best or most daring to make the finalist list.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s what I think, too, that he’s just not thinking about it very hard, which seems like such a disappointing shame for such a good tigery book. It makes me wonder why he felt he had to tack on that bit at all, and hence my wondering about genre.Rollings Reliable wouldn’t have given him the prize without the twist, I bet.

  7. vanbraman says:

    I really enjoyed the book. I saw part of the movie on a flight once. I woke up from a nap and it was near the end of the movie. I am glad that I didn’t see the whole thing. I will probably never watch the entire movie.

  8. Jeane says:

    I did really like the book. Just because I love reading about animals, and the difficulty of surviving with a tiger on the sea enthralled me. The film is gorgeous, too- I hope you get to see it sometime! the first time I read it I couldn’t decide on the ending- which was the real story? but I didn’t let it bother me. I didn’t make the connection with faith, although should have- author kind of threw it in there obviously with the character’s embracing all creeds in the beginning (part of me always wondered what was the point of that) so now I have more to think on.

    • Jenny says:

      All the natural-world stuff was really good. What did you make of the carnivorous island? I thought that was a little too obviously allegorical, and didn’t fit well with the rest of the book, but I was curious what others thought.

  9. Jeanne says:

    I like reading all the comments here, especially what Teresa says about “whether the truth of our beliefs matter if they enhance our lives.” I liked the ambiguity of the ending when I first read this book years ago, and that’s why–I wasn’t looking for an answer to that question, but enjoying the way he asked it with the tiger.
    Also, I really enjoy your last sentence with the tiger.
    I’m obviously in the “tigers make everything better” camp.

  10. Jeane says:

    Yes, the island was pretty weird. It was the first part of the story that made me start thinking: wait, this must be a dream he’s having, delusional from starvation and thirst.

    • Jenny says:

      It was too heavy-handed for me — the passively carnivorous island (very “Ghandian”) with the South African meerkats and all that. And it didn’t really fit with the rest of the story; it’s not as if Pi was particularly political. I found it weird.

  11. Christy says:

    I saw the movie in 3D last year and it was one of my favorite movie-watching experiences. Absolutely gorgeous to watch, and it made me cry, laugh, etc. Now that I know the ‘twist’, I don’t know that I will ever get around to reading the book. But I appreciate the dissection in your review about the message. In the movie, the message was definitely trite, but the other strengths of the film – particularly its visual strengths – outweighed this flaw.

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