The Life of Pi

By: Yann Martel
Published by: Random House, 2001

This was a difficult book to read for three reasons: I kept getting interrupted by work demands, which was very frustrating, as it is an excellent and very "readable" book; I kept stopping to write down particularly pithy or well-written sentences or paragraphs; it is both painful, and painfully beautiful, to read on many levels.

Let's start with the very unlikely premise: a young boy of about 12, the oddly-named Pi (short for Piscine, the French for swimming pool - and he literally is named for a swimming pool) has embarked with his parents and a dozen or so zoo animals on a boat bound for Canada. His father owned a zoo in Pondicherry, India. With political and economic turmoil, his father decides the best choice is to sell most of the animals, and with the profits, start life anew in the west. While en route, the ship they are traveling on sinks. Pi manages to escape in a lifeboat, along with a tiger, a hyena, an ape, a few rats and some flies. The rest of the story is about the seven months Pi spends a castaway.

Before and during the journey, we are treated to much in the way of zoo musings - the nature of zoos, animals, and captivity, of God, man and freedom. In one of my favorite passages, Pi explains to us that much of our pity for captive zoo animals is misplaced:

"I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion. Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are "happy" because they are "free."...The life of the wild animal is simple, noble, and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. It's happiness is dashed.... That is not the way it is... Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food is low.. Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time."

He points out that if we were to go to the home of a typical human, kick down the door, chase the people out yelling, "Go, you're free!" "do you think they would shout and dance about for joy? They wouldn't... The people you've just evicted would sputter, 'With what right do you throw us out? This is our home... We have lived here for years.'"

Martel has a talent for setting up our preconceived notions of what "is," arranging some very powerful lights around the "is," and then turning them on in a blinding flash of insight. In delight, I kept scribbling his observations in a notebook until I realized I would be transcribing half the book before I was through. Then I settled for dog-earing pages and reading aloud to anyone who had the patience to listen.

Before departing for Canada, Pi has been joining every church he can find. Born a Hindu, he decides he must hunt for God in all available organized religions. What he cannot tolerate, he decides, is doubt.

"It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the Garden of Gethsemane...But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."

In short order, Pi becomes a Catholic, then a Muslim. "The presence of God," he says, "is the finest of rewards," for all his seeking. But "What of God's silence?... An intellect confounded yet a trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose."

The jig is almost up as the imam, the priest, and the pandit all encounter Pi and his family on a walk in the park. Each greeting him as a true believer, they discover that he has been "unfaithful," if such a word can be applied to an excess of religious zeal.

"All religions are true," explains Pi. "I just want to love God."

"Ice cream, anyone?" replies his perplexed father.

All of Pi's spiritual meanderings, and his in-depth knowledge of zoo animals, act as preparation for the test which is to come: Pi's months at sea with only his faith and his knowledge of wild animals to protect him.

Adrift in a lifeboat following the sinking of the ship - which event orphans him - Pi at first welcomes "Richard Parker" to the boat with enthusiasm. Until we learn that Richard Parker is the name of a full-grown Bengal tiger. Already on board the small vessel are a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and an ape.With the addition of the tiger, the stage is set for the acting out of a unique morality play in which Pi must use wits and his sense of the numinous to enable his survival.

From the first, none of what Pi experiences, or the decisions that he must make, are what we might expect. Realizing that the tiger will simply dispatch each of the other passengers one by one, Pi reaches the surprising conclusion that the only way for him to survive is for the tiger to survive as well. He is too puny to kill the tiger. The makeshift raft he devises to separate himself from the tiger's domain of the lifeboat won't spare him when the tiger gets hungry or thirsty enough - tigers can swim. He realizes after weighing all his options that if he keeps the tiger fed and watered, the tiger won't use him for food. More - if he can become the tiger's master, tame the tiger with sustenance, his life will be safest of all. In a way, Pi becomes a zookeeper, or a god, to the tiger, balancing the threat the tiger poses against his own wits and will to live.

And along the way, he comes to know God in a way that no religion could teach him: "Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love - bust sometimes it was so hard to love... Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out. It was a hell beyond expression...The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving."

Martel is a philosopher of great power, perhaps because he paints his ideas with such a spare, clean, unpretentious brush. While many philosophical ideas weave deep and intricate patterns, or others strike chords of recognition, Martel's gift is in getting us to see the unexpected in the ordinary - to see the ordinary in the unexpected. Thus we endure his graphic descriptions of Pi's slaughter of sea turtles, because we know that Pi takes no pleasure in this act, yet accepts the absolute need to survive. We see evolution in the violence of the hyena, versus the suicidal despair of the tame ape, and the selfish altruism of Pi. We see the law of the jungle at work in the placid fatalism of the wounded zebra and the driving hunger of the tiger. We see, as Pi sees, God - in the many faces of the sky, the sea, and the fish: their beauty, their terror, their mundane discomforts.

I belong to a number of book review websites - among them Good Reads. Inevitably, when you mention that you are reading, or have read, The Life of Pi, reactions are the same: "What a wonderful book!"  And that about sums it up: The Life of Pi. What a wonderful book!


Popular Posts