The “Life of Pi” Book Review
If you read this book, it will quite likely not leave you un-changed. I have a beautiful slip-cased copy of the book, illustrated by Tomislav Torianic. It is signed by both the author and the illustrator and is copy number 1173 of a limited run of 3,000 such books. Published in 2007 by Canongate, Edinburgh, it consists of 449 pages.
Here is my very own personal review of the novel written by Yann Martel, “The Life of Pi.” Please do not read, unless you really do want to know what I thought about the book upon reading it.
Please be warned that there are “spoilers” at the end of this review.
If you are squeamish and want to avoid gory details and even another gruesome twist right at the end of the story, which wasn’t in the movie, then DO NOT read the book.
First, let me say that I eagerly rushed out to watch the movie, directed by Ang Lee, and while I can’t say I really enjoyed watching the movie, because as anyone who knows something about the movie (and the book) it was about survival at sea; I found the movie evocative and amazing. Now, onto the book. I really wanted to read it to see if there was an elaboration of Pi or the author’s connection to God in the book.
The book started off a little un-clearly to me, because of the first few chapters being prefaced in italicised text with the experiences of someone interviewing the adult Pi. It wasn’t until almost half way through the book that the story began telling of Pi’s ordeals at sea.
My opinion is that the connection to God was briefly touched upon twice in the movie, the first time when the writer whom interviews Pi meets someone in Pondicherry whom tells him he knows someone whom will tell him a story to make him believe in God. The second time is during Pi’s suffering in the movie.
Also, the belief in God is touched upon briefly but strongly during Pi’s sorrows in the book, following upon his exploration, as a teenager, of multiple religons, all in the cause of his own instinctual belief that there must be a God because of the wonders he finds himself a part of.
This latter component is often missing in other book reviews that I have read, which claim that neither Pi nor the author, Yann Martel, truly leads the reader to believe that there likely is or indeed facutally is a God. Whether it does or not, of course, depends upon the interpretation of the reader.
I find the reference to the support or the hand of God in Pi’s survival quite clear in the book, because building upon his quest for different ways to express his gratitude for what he knows and for Life itself, in terms of Pi taking on many different religions, he realises quite early on during his ordeal at sea, that the tiger, Richard Parker, is crucial to his survival.
As can be expected, he “rails” or cries at God asking why he is being put through his ordeal, but in the book, Pi comes to realise the challenges, the juxtapositions and the necessity of himself being responsible for manipulating his environment, which, un-usually, includes a Bengal tiger, are an orchestration of a transcendental force or power that he calls God.
Thus, the theme of our interconnectedness or of interconnection comes into the story. No person is an “island” and each individual of course lives in interaction, and hopefully in cooperation with other living beings and with the environment, in order to survive and not only that, but to live pleasurably or with some satisfaction.
Upon reflection, the literate reader can see the metaphors abounding in this story, with the tiger symbolising something primal and instinctively territorial and competitive. We would have had quite a different story and movie if Pi had to share the sea with a domesticated cat or dog.
The two Stories
The twist in the movie and in the book, that there are two possible stories of which neither can be proved true, but one seems more likely than the other, can be taken by the viewer and the reader as she or he wishes. That is, the person can believe in Pi’s story of his survival abetted un-wittingly by Richard Parker, which Pi at first tells the interviewer and the officials, or can believe that the alternative story is much more likely and the true story. If they believe in the latter story, then it is likely because they also believe that the elaborate detailed story Pi has atually given of the story with the tiger is all a hallucination born from hysteria and fear from his ordeal. The notebooks Pi kept a record of his experiences in at sea seem to have been lost when he was rescued.
The truth is that this book is a work of fiction, so it does not matter which ending was “true”, but we then look at which ending the viewer and reader like to think would have been true if it was indeed a true story.
The following blog page below gives a very good analysis of what it means about being a believer in God or an atheist or an agnostic, depending upon which ending you fancy.
Here I must state in my review that I feel a closeness to all animals and I respect all animals, not to say that I love all animals. They are two different things. Even David Attenborough (whom I have met in person, see this post here about that) said once in a tv interview “how can I love a parasitic worm, no I don’t love all animals, but I do respect all animals”.
It is for this reason then, and of course partly due to a dose of my personal being or my state of mind at the time I read the story, that I actually felt quite traumatised upon reading the book. The descriptions of Pi savagely killing life at sea, in order to eat, and the twist at the end (and I’m not talking about the alternate stories) are really awful and the pure butchery of the animals in the book are something that I wished I had not read about once I had finished reading the whole book.
That said, as time passed since I did finish reading the book, and I was able to remind myself it was a work of fiction, though the survival techniques employed by Pi are quite possible and could of course have been employed by real survivors or even other categories of people at sea, fortunately, I was then able to ruminate upon the craftsmanship and the legacy of the story.
What the Story meant to Me
All in all, for me personally and not speaking for anyone else at all, it has above all cemented my belief that animals have souls and that the nature of Life is inexplicable in terms of the primal order of predator preying upon prey.
It did not make me believe in God, because it is a work of fiction, but it made me think that the chain and web of events that we sum up as “life” may not just be coincidence or have appeared out of nothing; but that anything in life actually or potentially (including what happened in the story, which is a feasible story) is orchestrated by a divine force or power, by sheer dint of the marvel of the interactions, or of the permutations and combinations, and of course, the “outcomes”.
If Pi’s story about survival with a tiger at sea WERE a true story, then it would make me believe in God without question. I then turn to other miraculous events that I know of and have even personally experienced, and ask myself “was God involved?” For example, when I was 20 years of age, I was in the city at 9.30pm waiting for a bus home one day, when I had an un-easy feeling. Instinct? A guardian angel? God speaking to me? I moved into the light of a street lamp and a shadowy figure appeared behind me, pressing something to my back. A voice said lowly to me, “you’re going to come with me, see I’ve got a knife at your back.”
Instantly I froze in a fright / flight response. I remained calm and asked myself what should I do now? Was this instinct or intelligence or reason, or was it the hand of God helping me to be calm? No answer about how I could get myself out of the situation came, and after the initial seconds of shock, a terror welled up inside and I knew I was going to try to scream. Before I could scream, a miracle occurred.
In a road at a right angles to the road I was at, there was a taxi parked near the corner. The taxi had its lights off, for the taxi driver was having a break. At that instant before I was going to scream, the taxi driver raised his head and something told him to start up his car and to drive up to me, to see what was going on. I will never forget those head-lights coming on. To me, it was like an angel had appeared and was welcoming me with the white light.
The taxi driver’s approach startled my would-be attacker, and the taxi slowly coasted up the road, and I ran for that taxi. A coincidence, perhaps? Perhaps it was the spirit of God, an aware consciousness that is part of a totality of consciousness/awareness including the awareness that it was not destined for me to be attacked, even killed, that was on hand. You decide, if you like.
Furthermore, it is my opinion that those who decry God saying a benevolent God would not let “bad” things happen, forget that human beings have free-will and that most of the time, it is our free-will that causes harm.
The themes of the Story
Many themes can be found in this story, such as the survival instinct which is innate in all living beings, both human and non-humans, juxtaposed against free-will, because Pi is by choice, a vegetarian, and chooses that if he can.
Sometimes we are pitted against the odds, and have to make a decision, even if that goes against what we have been used to and what we shied away from before or choose not to do if we can avoid it.
Soon, as Pi is well aware, a decision to change becomes something we get used to doing from repetition. That said, I think that this illustrates the “conditioning” of human beings and their faculty for choosing, rather than illustrates that a person will permanently change themself, because when the conditions once again change and the person can revert to their previous state, then he/she no doubt will revert to their previous state, erring toward their definite preference, as Pi did. In other words, free will is on hand here.
This Review must be finished off with my saying that to a peaceful person whom “likes animals”, the “Life of Pi” is a horror story in many senses, and I did not at all like or see the sense in the twist at the end about the blind Frenchman, which is not in the movie. I can only think that Yann Martel and the editors added this part more out of literary egress, rather than to tanatalise the reader into stretching their boundaries of belief regarding whether the story with the tiger was believable. Believing in the tiger and the floating island are two stretches of the imagination, almost “un-reasonable” elements, and introducing a third in the the shape of meeting the blind man toward the end of Pi’s ordeal at sea, for me personally, was going too far.
“The Life of Pi” story, to me, was very disturbing, yet probably worth the read. I really think that I do get what the theme of the novel is. In the author’s own words, the theme of the story is that –
Reality is a story and we can choose our story and so why not pick “the better story”?
If you are prepared to read a survival story that “packs a lot of punches” so to speak, involving butchery of animals, depravity, cannibalism and murder, as well as a personal understanding that God’s will be done, then go ahead and read this book.
To read questions and answers with Yann Martel, the “Life of Pi” author, go to the following ABC News story. Take a close look at page 4 when he talks about why the floating island is in the story.
Furthermore, to find out a little more about the origins of the story, straight from the mouth of the author, Yann Martel, click on the link below for an essay from Powells. I personally think that Martel did not need to put in so many “un-reasonable” or even “absurd” elements, to use his own terminology about the “absurdity” of the blind Frenchman. If he had ommitted the part about the blind Frenchman at the end, I would personally have given the book five stars. As it is, I would rate this book 4 1/2 Stars.