The Life of Pi

This week resident book reviewer Adam Riley reviews The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi

Piscine Molitor Patel, an intelligent, spiritual boy who renames himself Pi after one too many jokes about the similarity between his first name and a certain bodily function, grows up in his parents’ zoo in Pondicherry, a former French colony in Southern India. By birth a Hindu, he finds himself simultaneously attracted to Christianity after a visit to a Catholic church, and Islam through conversations with a local Muslim, leading to the unusual position of practising three mutually exclusive religions.

But when the family try to relocate the zoo to Canada, all three faiths are severly tested. The cargo ship sinks, leaving Pi as the only human survivor, stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, some cockroaches and a Bengal tiger. Natural food chain hierarchies soon reduce the occupants to just Pi and the tiger, leaving the sixteen year old boy in a desperate struggle for survival against the elements, starvation, dehydration and a vicious predator. But is the tiger really a threat to Pi, or are their lives more entwined than they really know?

A very famous book, and now a very famous film, the above plot is fairly well known. I did not expect, however, the rich metaphorical turns the story would take, and its ambiguous, thought-provoking ending. Written mainly from the point of view of Pi, the style exhibits a dignified wonder at the peculiarities of existence, as well as deadpan humour, for example when Pi begins to have his doubts the crew of the ship have his safety in mind when they throw him overboard, and chapter 97, which consists of the entire story retold in two words. Obvious literary comparisons can be made to Robinson Crusoe, particularly in the detailed methods used by the resourceful narrator to stay alive, and Pincher Martin, William Golding’s stark, intense story of a drowning man clinging to the illusions in his own head.

A highly symbolical novel, exploring the manifold expressions of life’s will to live, The Life of Pi also scrutinises the central problem of human existence: the tension between our perception of ourselves as rational, moral beings, and the reality of our animal precondition. Perhaps, The Life of Pi does not see this as a problem, but merely a fact, one that a higher power might prefer to include in any story it writes.

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