Book: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release date: June 4, 2002
Source: Purchased ebook from Amazon
Summary from Goodreads:
Life of Pi is a masterful and utterly original novel that is at once the story of a young castaway who faces immeasurable hardships on the high seas, and a meditation on religion, faith, art and life that is as witty as it is profound. Using the threads of all of our best stories, Yann Martel has woven a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe.
As Yann Martel has said in one interview, “The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.” And for Martel, the greatest imaginative overlay is religion. “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material — any greater pattern of meaning.” In Life of Pi, the question of stories, and of what stories to believe, is front and centre from the beginning, when the author tells us how he was led to Pi Patel and to this novel: in an Indian coffee house, a gentleman told him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And as this novel comes to its brilliant conclusion, Pi shows us that the story with the imaginative overlay is also the story that contains the most truth.
I resisted this book for a long time, for three very good reasons: 1) it’s literary fiction; 2) it won the Man Booker Prize, and I’m historically 50/50 on liking Man Booker nominee and winning books; and 3) everyone talked about how amazing it was, and that kind of lavish praise makes me wary.
It wasn’t until my sister said she wanted to see the movie and I read a bunch of reviews that said the book was one that needed to be discussed that we decided we should read it. She may live 500 miles away and be stuck in baby jail (she has an 8 month old and is a stay at home mom), but we can spend time reading the same book at the same time and then talk about it, right? Thus Sister Book Club was born, and our inaugural read was Life of Pi. A few weeks later, we found an afternoon where we could both see the movie in our respective cities at about the same time so we could see it “together.”
Today I’ll be talking about both the book and the movie, and I’ll provide major spoiler alerts/hides when I get around to discussing that ending. I had the book spoiled for me early on, and it’s a shame because I think the ending serves a very distinct and effective purpose to the overall structure and message of the book, so I promise to avoid spoiling it for those of you who haven’t read it. That said, there is a lot to say about the book and movie that doesn’t rely on spoiler talk, so I hope you’ll still stick around.
First, there was a book…
The book opens by telling us we are about to hear a story that will make the reader believe in God. It’s a tall order, one that seems to purposefully put us on edge. “Ha!” we say. “I’d like to see you try,” we mutter. And we begin by taking the words with a grain of salt, perhaps waiting for the treacly drivel that comes from a boy being lost at sea who needs faith to pull him through his debacle.
Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi, tells us his history of faith. He was raised Hindu, but through a series of encounters with a priest and in a mosque, he becomes a faithful adherent of Catholicism and Islam as well. As a bit of a patchwork quilt of religions myself, I really identified with Pi’s healthy skepticism and yet profound sense of faith. There are many ways in which we express faith, and Pi felt at home in a variety of them.
Though I have read complaints that this beginning section is slow, I found them to be a vital backdrop for Pi’s journey. Without understanding how he comprehends and converses with God, we have little understanding of how his tale at sea translates into faith. Even more importantly, without the knowledge of how Pi relates to Richard Parker or the zoo animals raised by his family, we will be unable to suspend our disbelief as to how a small Indian boy could possibly survive a journey in a lifeboat with a tiger.
The book is largely told as a story within a story – Pi is telling the story of his life to a young American novelist. There are a couple of POV changes where we see the novelist interject his own thoughts on Pi and his story, but largely the story is told from Pi’s perspective, including the longest section when he is lost at sea.
The chapters after the shipwreck are short and not chronological. Pi lost most of his sense of time while adrift, and so we get glimpses at varying states of his being. We see him wildly delirious, joyously triumphant, and terrifyingly angry. Through these glimpses into his most powerful memories of this trip, we are taken on an incredibly journey alongside him.
So how does this tale inspire belief in God? Well, if you have any interest in seeing the movie or reading the book, I encourage you to not read too many reviews. I had the ending spoiled by reading comments on Goodreads, and it took some of the magic out of the reading experience. So skip this section and go right ahead to the movie review, but for the rest of you who have read it (or have seen the movie, or don’t care about spoilers) I’ve added my thoughts on the ending in the camouflaged section below.
**SPOILER ALERT – HIGHLIGHT TO READ THIS SECTION**
If you’re reading this section, I’m assuming you’re okay with major spoilers.
By the end of the book, we know only one thing for certain – that Pi survived his ordeal in the lifeboat. Beyond that, we have a lot of questions. Did he really travel with a tiger, an orangutan, a zebra, and a hyena? Or did he watch the cook murder the few survivors before Pi killed him out of revenge and survival?
The book challenges us by asking us to choose the one we like better. What makes the better story, and more importantly, why? By acknowledging the story as an allegory, it illuminates how other stories function as allegories, too. How does the reading of this story impact our understanding of, say, the stories in the Bible?
I loved being faced with all of the questions presented to us at the end, and I sincerely bow down to Yann Martel for creating such an incredible work of fiction. This is the kind of book that makes me want to throw in the towel on my own fiction, because I can only dream of creating a story so compelling, intelligent, beautiful, and inspiring.
This one belongs on the Special Shelf, where it will be read over and over again. I strongly encourage you to pick up this book, but if you’re more of the movie type…
Then there came a movie…
After reading such an epic tale, I could see why so many had deemed it unfilmable. I mean, putting a tiger with a young boy is one thing, but throwing them in a boat too? Yikes.
Ang Lee showed us all, that’s for sure. Though the majority of the tiger scenes in the movie were done with CGI, I really only noticed it in a handful of scenes. Digital creation has come a long way, and they spent a pretty penny to make one fantastic looking cat.
I was a bit sad to see that they added in an unnecessary pseudo-love interest for Pi. Does every story need a romance these days? I can think of plenty of other ways from the book that Pi could stay motivated through his journey, which is the only justification I can come up with for why they added the love interest anyway.
The photography is stunning, and worth the price of admission alone. The movie manages to showcase the immense beauty and power of the ocean, while constantly reminding us of her danger and fury. Some of the shots and scenes were so visually impactful that I easily forgave their inconsistencies with the book. I don’t care that it didn’t happen in the book – Ang Lee can show me that whale jumping over the lifeboat all he wants. Amazing.
The movie succeeded in pulling me more into the emotional journey than did the book. This isn’t unusual for me, as I’m a pretty visual person in general. The moment when Pi last sees Richard Parker was sad in the book, for sure, but absolutely tore me up watching the movie.
If you don’t think the book is for you, I still highly recommend seeing the movie. The ending may not be as impactful (the movie kind of beats you over the head with the message – what are we, dummies?), but the tale itself is one to see. 5 stars to both the book and the movie!
Rating: 5/5 stars
Click the stars for a description of my rating system