Well, we all know this series has been a failure. However, at least now I’ve at least read a book a month! Plus, I’m midway through three new titles (back in my multiple novel habit) so I’ll definitely hit fifteen by the end of the year at least. Yeah.. not quite 52.. but life is busy!
So, head onwards into my review of Life of Pi, perhaps my favourite novel of 2018 (so far).
I purposefully refused to see the film adaptation for two reasons. One, I hadn’t read the book yet. Two, I’m deathly afraid of the ocean. I’ve resolved one of these issues – hint: I won’t be booking a cruise any time soon.
Life of Pi was an incredible read. I’ll separate this review into three parts so you can skip ahead if you like. 1) discussion of faith in the book 2) discussion of the ocean & my anxiety 3) the conclusion confusion (that has a great ring to it, say it out loud).
Before I head into detail, here’s a two sentence summary for ya. Life of Pi sees a young Indian boy (Piscine, or, ‘Pi’) shipwrecked during a journey to move the family zoo. Pi is left stranded on a lifeboat for seven months with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Faith in Life of Pi
Let me pre-empt this by saying I’m a pretty quiet atheist, but I have a simmering anger towards organised religion (read: Christianity) which I won’t get into. So, when I read the opening chapters of Life of Pi I’ll admit I had a little eye roll moment. The entire point of the novel, presumably from the first chapter, is to make the listener (reader) believe in God. I was like ‘yeah, yeah, I really just do not care‘. But, I was wrong to presume Martel would present a rigid view of religion. I was wrong to presume I would be frustrated by the faith in this novel. I was wrong to presume I knew where Pi’s story was headed.
Firstly, I know Pi is a fictional character, but his approach to faith is beautiful and contagious. Pi, as a young boy, is fascinated by faith and by many religions. He speaks to every religious man he comes across (distinct lack of women in this book, but let’s just move on from that..) and genuinely listens and embraces all he meets. He is raised Hindu, predictably, as he is born in Pondicherry, India, but his Hinduism is more in theory than in practise. Pi’s brother prefers cricket to religion, his mother seems quietly spiritual but does not outwardly push devout Hinduism, and Pi’s father has the zoo as his religion.
On a family holiday, Pi finds a church atop a hill and is transfixed. He meets a priest who tells him about the trials of Christ and Pi is understandably confused. Jesus suffers at the hand of humans, and Pi cannot at first comprehend this humiliation compared to the infinite power of Hindu gods. I’ll insert the beginning of this religious education, since Martel writes it best.
Pi raises some bloody great questions, predictable questions from someone not raised in Christianity. But, Pi has a great experience with the priest, and with Christianity. He begins to accept Christianity into his life along with Hinduism.
Pi also approaches Islam. He meets a modest baker and asks to hear about his faith. The baker lights up, invites Pi further into his bakery/home and begins to talk. After a few minutes, the baker hears the call to prayer and begins to pray on a mat near him. Pi quietly watches as the baker prays towards Mecca. Afterwards, the baker continues speaking to Pi, picking up exactly where he left off. Pi, again, falls in love with the religion: ‘I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.’
So, we see Pi practicing Hinduism, praying multiples times a day on his own prayer mat, and also incorporating Christianity. He has close friendships with men from each religion. There’s a beautiful moment when all three men descend upon Pi and his parents one day and begin to argue about his religion. Pi, seemingly, cannot be all three, he must choose a faith and be loyal to it. The three religious men continue to shout at each other, before turning to Pi and asking him to choose. Pi quietly, embarrassedly, mumbles that he just wants to love God. ‘If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?’ In his quiet faith, all three religious men hang their heads, embarrassed also, and realise their failure. Pi is allowed to continue. He is not encouraged in his multi-faith lifestyle, regularly being told it is ‘unusual’ and is ‘just not done’, but Pi continues. Pi keeps all three religions close to his heart, and continues to be fascinated by all kinds of spirituality.
As a pretty fierce atheist, this entire theme of religious discovery and exploration was beautiful to me. I may believe in none of this, but I’m fascinated by people who do. Plus, though I hate having religion shoved down my throat (@ all you dickheads shouting about ‘hell’ in the streets as we try to shop on a Saturday) I love seeing someone’s face light up when I ask them about their faith. For me, it’s like asking a mother about her child, an artist about her painting, a singer about her song, a chef about her latest creation. I’m fascinated by passion: and faith, undoubtedly, harbours passion.
‘Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat wearing Muslims.’
The Ocean in Life of Pi
One of the best things about the novel, was also the worst. I experienced real anxiety reading this book. I have a huge phobia of the ocean, specifically being on the ocean and not being able to see land. Suffice to say, this book was scary. But it was more than that, Martel’s writing is unbelievably vivid which means there isn’t just a mental picture created, it’s a genuine experience. I was on that lifeboat with Pi, I felt the terror as he did. I couldn’t sleep because I could hear the sharks bashing their noses against my raft. I couldn’t stop reading because I knew Richard Parker was about to leap.
Congratulations to Yann Martel for doubling my anxiety. I actually stayed up for over an hour planning how I could strap water and other supplies to my chest when I slept on a boat. This genuine fear is a testament to how fantastic the writing is. I’ve decided to include a segment of writing which happens to be both gorgeous and terrifying. Check out Martel’s description of the shark-riddled ocean and tell me you don’t think it’s beautiful.
There is so much to say about the ocean in this novel, but I think you should read it yourself to truly understand the way in which Martel portrays the fear, isolation, and beauty of the unfaltering ocean.
‘For the first time I noticed – as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next – that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still.’
SPOILERS. S P O I L E R S. SPOILERS.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this novel is the conclusion. Pi is rescued from the shoreline of Mexico. Richard Parker (the tiger, if you’re not keeping up) has escaped into the jungle before anyone finds Pi on the beach.
Pi is taken to a hospital and is interviewed by two Japanese men who are trying to figure out how the boat sank in the first place. Pi tells his tale, tiger and all, and the men listen. When Pi is finished, the men say it is impossible. Pi is angry that they do not believe him, frustrated by their lack of understanding and their heaps of questions. Pi asks: ‘would you like another story?’ and the men say yes. Pi then tells the same story, but swaps some of the animals* for humans. (*There are more animals on the boat to begin with, a hyena, an Orang Utan, cockroaches.) It is clear that the two stories are interlinked, Pi becomes the Tiger, the Orang Utan is his mother and so on. If the reader fails to make this connection, Martel has one of the Japanese men point this out to his partner. The men listen. Pi then asks ‘which story is better?’ and the men say ‘the one with the animals’.
“‘So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?’ Mr. Okamoto: ‘That’s an interesting question?’ Mr. Chiba: ‘The story with animals.’ Mr. Okamoto: ‘Yes. The story with animals is the better story.’ Pi Patel: ‘Thank you. And so it goes with God.'”
After suffering through the entire story with Pi, I think the romantic reader is furious to consider that Richard Parker may have been a metaphor for Pi the entire time. The romantic reader casts the second story aside with bitterness and laughs at the fragile faith of the Japanese men. The cynical reader nods to themselves and looks back at the horrors Pi experienced; ‘ah, yes,’ the cynic says to herself, ‘he is covering his pain in fur and claws. The human mind finds any way to deal with trauma.’
Which ever way you fall on the scale, whichever story you accept, Life of Pi is captivating from its beginning to its end.
Let me know if you’ve read Life of Pi I’d be fascinated to know how you felt once you’d finished. Do you still catch yourself thinking about the cannibalistic island? Does Richard Parker prowl through your dreams? I know I won’t forget this book anytime soon.