So, back in 2004 I bought a paperback copy of Life of Pi with an urge to read it. I made it to around twenty pages in and gave up, got rid of my copy of the book and decided that it was unlikely I’d ever read Yann Martel’s finest work. Skip ahead to the first World Book Night and I was gifted a new copy and under my new passion for literary fiction decided that one day I would try again. Now, the film adaptation by Ang Lee is on the horizon and on a very sudden whim I picked up the novel and begun again.
I want to make it clear that while this can be read as a review, I feel I want to discuss many parts of the plot so it is worth making it clear that the end of this post will feature spoilers. I will of course let you know when they’re coming up so you can still read about the book.
Life of Pi seems known as a Marmite book. For those unfamiliar with the deep brown goo that some spread on other foods, the phrase means “Love it or Hate it”. After discussing it on Twitter it really did fall into a 50/50 camp of lovers and haters. It’s the haters I want to focus on right now. Most said that the opening part (which spans around 120 pages) was too dry and slow going. I totally agree, however, this is definitely a book in which you should fight through.
The central character, Pi, is the son of a zookeeper and an intelligent though naïve boy who longs to explore religion and become closer to God. He does this by becoming a Christian as well as Muslim and Hindu. This means that the opening section deals a lot with Pi’s views of said religions and also the attitudes of animals in the zoo. It is understandable that this can feel rather dry as much of the dialogue is deep, philosophical and educational. We read of moments where the idea of following several religion ideals is debated, we read about the many stories of God, we read about the behaviour of animals both in the wild and in captivity and we read Pi’s inner thoughts on his place in the world. It’s all very deep stuff.
It’s understandable that those who pick up the book (me being one of them) expecting a story of a young Indian boy stranded at sea with a Bengal Tiger, would be put off at this point. However, those who push through this sombre opening will soon find a riveting story that centres on survival as well as faith and humanity.
At the end of the first part we find that Pi’s family is moving to Canada and selling their animals from the zoo. They are put in crates, loaded onto the TsimTsum ship and everyone takes to the waves. It’s not long into part two that the boat sinks and Pi finds himself on the lifeboat with Richard Parker – the Bengal Tiger. Now, this isn’t really a spoiler but, there’s more than the tiger on board. There’s also a Zebra, a Hyena and a Rat and with this being a 27 foot lifeboat there’s a storage cache for survivors filled with food, water and tools.
Now we begin on a voyage of survival for Pi and learn how he deals with his loneliness, hunger and of course, living with a tiger. Suddenly the book changes feel. Where in the opening section everything was dry and indulgent, this middle section is brutal and graphic. Martel holds nothing back in the descriptions of the animals killing each other on the boat and how Pi must train Richard Parker in order to stay alive. Each sentence is jarring and bloody, nothing is left to the imagination. But while the writing is vicious, it is also beautiful. The prose moves from poetic to staccato in fashion with great ease and the text is nothing but absorbing.
From here there are various trials and tribulations for Pi to overcome, particularly as his vegetarian background and religious beliefs come into focus. Pi is constantly stretched to breaking point and the reader begins to hang on his every decision with the fear inherited. This is very apparent in the scenes with Richard Parker. Pi narrates how animals view those who step into their territory and what pushes a wild beast to attack or lash out. The reader’s ideas of Pi are always being reinforced by his intelligence and knowledge of animals from his upbringing within the zoo. We have confidence in this young man because his actions are usually sound. This can, of course, bring the reader even closer to the protagonist because he is telling us personally his tale of survival.
As we draw closer to the third and final part of the novel the story morphs once again and now takes a step towards the surreal or the fantastical, if you like. The reader soon understands how Pi must feels because we become as swept away as he does. This all culminates in what I found to be a superb final section that left me winded and amazed.
This is where I summarise and tell you again that the writing is great, the plot is intriguing and everything bar the wonky start is wonderful. To reiterate even further, this is where I place five shiny stars.
However, I’m not quite done. If you are thinking of reading the novel, seeing the film… Or both, then this is where you should be off. Run away with you and enjoy the experience with no spoiling from me. Because if you keep reading you will see me discussing the ending and how it affects the rest of the story. I’ll even play it safe and throw the trailer for the film here so that you don’t peek a spoiler by mistake.
The ending to the novel is what elevated the story from something great to something of sheer brilliance. Now I know the ending splits people just as much as the opening part of the novel, but I personally thought that it was a work of genius.
So, Pi has washed up in Mexico and Richard Parker has run off into a jungle the borders the beach where Pi has fallen. In the final part we see two insurance investigators visit Pi to discuss the sinking of the TsimTsum, this is where Pi tells the story for the first time. The investigators don’t believe his tale and Pi then tells of his survival with three others – his mother, the ships cook and a sailor. He describes how the chef was “a brute” and cannibalised the sailor then murdered Pi’s mother. Now the story is beyond brutal and the story becomes a repulsive one.
Pi then asks the investigators which story they prefer, they vote for the animals. And now it is the readers turn, which do we prefer or want to believe?
This small scene which lasts a mere 12 pages, perhaps, changes the entire scope of what preceded it. Of course, Pi is the Tiger, he is Richard Parker. Pi told himself the story of the animals to mask how awful humanity can truly be under stress. Suddenly we see the tale in a different light. Each action that Richard Parker acted out was really Pi. HE killed, HE ate the flesh and HE had to hide his animalistic instincts. Some see this as a copout but in this discussion it’s worth reading both sides. You should also listen to this episode of Literary Disco podcast (download them all, it’s a brilliant show!) and listen to their discussion.
I’m so intrigued as to how the film will portray this ending as it is left to the reader to discover and piece together. I already have my ticket and can’t wait to see it. I must also now track down a copy of the illustrated version!
“And so it goes with God”