Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

With the recent release of the film, I thought I probably ought to read and review it sometime soon. This is the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, also known as Pi. He is a zoologist, originally from Pondicherry where his parents owned a zoo but he graduated from Toronto University. This novel is the account of the remarkable events of his life. It is a Man Booker winner and has sold over 7 million copies.

Broken down into three sections, the first part (Toronto and Pondicherry) is a description of his early life: his life in his parents zoo and how he came to take the nickname “Pi”. There is some fascinating description of zoo life and his parents work there and over the young boy’s years he comes to understand some animal psychology which will become significant later. During his schooling, he is introduced to Christianity and Islam. He is a Hindu but is fascinated by the ideas of these other religions and decides to honour all three traditions, much to the indignation of local religious leaders and his parents.

Following a land dispute, his parents decide to sell their zoo and move to Canada. But the boat carrying them on their journey does not make it, and sinks. This leads us into part two (The Pacific Ocean) where Pi is the sole human survivor on a lifeboat which also contains a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger.

The harrowing first hour of the sinking and struggle to survive is described in vivid detail, as is that first sunrise as Pi hopes and prays to any god who will listen for help to come soon. He and the animals brave the storm that sank the ship as well as sharks and the open ocean… and each other. Soon only Pi and the tiger remain and the boy focuses on winning a battle of wits with the feline, that is until he realises that his own survival depends on the tiger’s survival. Most of the rest of this part of the book is dedicated to his struggle to survive and to keeping the tiger alive. Of course, this is the part of the book where the greatest part of the philosophy of the work takes place. I have my own thoughts but I do not wish to share them here in what is a book review; besides which I think people should read it to make up their own minds about what the philosophy behind it is. I may save a discussion of the philosophy behind this story for another post.

The third (short) and final part follows his rescue, a conversation he has with the Japanese officials who are investigating the sinking and his arrival in Toronto. The incredulity of the investigators leads Pi to ask of them some deeply profound questions about the nature and ease of believing seemingly impossible stories.

This is a surprisingly easy read for a “Booker” winner. The prose is incredibly vivid and Pi, though coming across as pretentious in the beginning, is a very likeable character and animated within the world he inhabits. Being so incredibly thoughtful, you would have expected the work to be heavy going and unnecessarily complicated but this is not so. At just over 300 pages, it is also quite short for modern literature as well as a tale where there is so much self-reflection.

Highly recommended.

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