Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Life of Pi

Since the whole purpose of this blog is to get people talking about books and recommending them to me, I decided it was time to start working on those recommendations. "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel was recommended by my friend, Jen, and I'm very glad I read it. I'm not sure how I feel about it yet, but I'm glad I read it. It's about a teenage Indian boy, Pi, who is traveling to Canada from India with his family and their assorted zoo animals. His father owned a zoo that he sold to somewhere in Canada, along with many of the animals that they had to transport. At some point in the Pacific Ocean on their journey, the ship sinks and Pi is left on a lifeboat with a hyena, a wounded zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger. He witnesses the tiger dispatch of the other animals and then has to use his wits to stay alive with a hungry Bengal tiger in a 32 foot lifeboat. It's useful that Pi grew up with a zookeeper father, or else he wouldn't know so many things about animal behavior, particularly tigers.

This is a survival story and I'll spoil it by saying that Pi does live through this ordeal, or else he wouldn't be able to tell the story after. But with this tale comes all the gory detail of surviving. The hyena and tiger are vicious and lethal, according to their nature, and the narrator doesn't leave anything out. By the time he gets to land, Pi has eaten anything he can and in gory detail. I don't have a strong constitution for that sort of thing and found myself skimming those parts as much as possible. But everything is told with such humor! At one point, he gives instructions on how to train a tiger in a lifeboat to stay in his part and recognize your territory. I found myself trying to memorize the instructions, like I would possibly need them someday or something, I don't know. But it was riveting.

The beautiful parts of the story are at the beginning, describing how much he loves the zoo and his own religious conversion. He's raised Hindu, but decides that he also wants to be Christian and Muslim because of the beauty that calls to him from those beliefs. The local religious leaders are dismayed by this, but Pi makes it work. At one point on the boat, he is shocked by something and says, "Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu!" He's got everybody covered. He is a brilliant, kind, charming young man who is then subjected to unbelievable horror and adversity. And through it all, his beliefs are unshaken. That was inspiring to me. The whole ordeal left him changed, though, and at one point in the narration he says that a part of him died that has never come alive again.

Can I say that I loved this book? I don't know. I know that I couldn't put it down, that it was the most suspenseful book I have ever read. I know that it made me a firmer believer in the virtue of well-run zoos. I know that it was a beautiful testament of faith. But I don't think I could ever read it again.

Now I'm going to move on to the next book recommended to me. It's about World War I, so I'm hoping it's got less tigers in it. We shall see.


  1. I'm so glad you read this book. I ended up re-reading the ending a few times to make sure I understood it. It was a bit gory but also fascinating!

  2. I got the audio book on your recommendation. it was a fascinating read, I must say!

    The beginning wasn't as interesting for me. I found myself not paying attention to all the religious and zoo speak.

    But the entire survival story was really riveting. The ending threw me for a loop though.

    Which story was true?

  3. The ending left me kind of depressed. Which was true? I think the ambiguity is part of the point. But like Pi says, which story would you rather believe in?

  4. I was frustrated by the ending because of course I wanted to believe the more imaginative one. I wonder if he changed the people to animals as a coping mechanism. Animal behavior is much more easily explained than human behavior.

  5. I think the ending is more clear when you reflect on the mythicial Hindu stories that abound in the beginning. I.e. both are true -- but not necessarily true in the same way. An amazing read.