Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I have three copies of this book. And I just got around to reading it. You see, I’ve had this book handed to me by a friend several months ago, and before that intentionally “forgotten” at my home by somebody else. And Kiersten just brought her copy with her when she moved in. I have no clue whose Life of Pi I just read.

"Well, I'm sure we'd be off this raft by now if somebody hadn't decided to eat all the flares."

It’s just that kind of book, apparently. It’s not hard to find someone who for whom Life of Pi is  greatest book in the universe, one that ought to be distributed like Gideon Bibles.

(Personal Fact: When I open a book that’s everyone’s favorite, a curious thing happens to my brain: my hopefulness in enjoying another good book, backed by the popular opinion, is there to cheer on the reading, and at the same time my independent impulse resists liking it.  Might have influenced my reception of this one to a degree.)

I’ve discovered few people with a lukewarm opinion of the novel, but what seemed to mar their experience was little more than, “they’re on that lifeboat for a long goddamn time.”

Piscine “Pi” Patel is the son of a zoo owner in Pondicherry, India, and in his adolescent spiritual wanderings has become a Christian and a Muslim in addition to his Hindu faith. When his family (and most of the zoo animals) move to North America, the ship wrecks in the middle of the Pacific, leaving Pi and several of the animals floating in a lifeboat. Eventually it’s just him and the tiger–who’s dismantled the other passengers.

So yeah, most of the story is Holy Shit I’m On This Raft With a Tiger, for a couple hundred pages spanning 277 days. But to Martel’s credit, he fills that space with every imaginable interesting thing that could occur in those circumstances, including several near impossible things (which are part of a point made later in the novel).

“But they’re on that boat for a real long time.”

Sure, but the part of me that liked Hatchet and The Cay as a kid was decently engaged by the story. I did, however, flip back to the front cover periodically for the reminder that this won the Man Booker, you know, for the promise that there’s got to be more than this.

And there is. Any redeeming significance of the novel is heaped onto the ending. This makes it almost disingenuous to talk about the book without some spoilerage going on…

The Ending

So if you don’t believe any of the religious stories for the world’s creation, do they still have value? Do they still hold “truth”?

When I read The Things They Carried in high school, I was introduced to the wonderful, liberating concept that truth, in fiction, is not necessarily synonymous with fact. A made-up tale that speaks to you is more honest and genuine than a true account that doesn’t. That idea has changed the way I look at the world.

If I were more affected by Life of Pi, if its main story carried lessons that seemed more original or striking to me, it would have been an eye-opener. But it didn’t quite and wasn’t quite. It never transcended, at least for me, its categorization as a survival yarn.

I’d probably be singing higher praises for this book if I were still in early college–a time when you couldn’t cook up a theological discussion that I wouldn’t have found super interesting. Even then, though, I might have seen the bugs in Martel’s analogy that keep the ending from working. As it happened, I found the zoological aspects of the novel far more fascinating than the theological.

The ending is clever. I like it when a few pages can force a new spin on the entire story you’ve read up to that point. That’s about all the good I can say for it, though, since it’s not the dynamite argument for belief that it thinks it is.

Hampering my enjoyment of this book along the way was Martel’s overly cute attempts at the absurd (I’m looking at you, Mr. Kumar and Mr. Kumar), and his narrator, who, for a kid with an inclusive view of God, manages to be oddly didactic.

I found Life of Pi worthwhile, though barely.

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