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Life of Pi

Yann Martel

Average Review Rating Average Rating 9/10 (2 Reviews)
Book Details

Publisher : Canongate Books Ltd

Published : 2003

Copyright : Yann Martel 2003

ISBN-10 : PB 1-84195-392-X
ISBN-13 : PB 978-1-84195-392-2

Publisher's Write-Up

Like its noteworthy ancestors (Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, the Ancient Mariner and Moby Dick) Life of Pi is a tale of disaster at sea. Both a boys' own adventure (for grown-ups) and a meditation on faith and the value of religious metaphor, it was one of the most extraordinary and original novels of 2002. The only survivor from the wreck of a cargo ship on the Pacific, 16 year old Pi spends 221 days on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker.

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Reader Reviews

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Review by Nadine (160505) Rating (8/10)
Review by Laurel
(250305) Rating (9/10)

Review by Nadine
Rating 8/10
This is the story of a young Indian boy named Pi, the deeply spiritual son of a zoo-keeper. He and his family embark on a voyage to Canada where they intend to settle, taking many of their animals with them to sell to American zoos. Disaster strikes and the ship sinks, leaving Pi drifting in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean, his only companion a fully-grown Bengal tiger.

I seem to have read a lot of books lately that have a distinctly religious theme, through no deliberate effort. I have never consciously set out in search of these spiritual stories – they just seem to come to me. Maybe someone is trying to tell me something!

In the prologue, our narrator is promised “a story that will make you believe in God”. A tall order for anybody, and I can’t say that this book led me to any great spiritual epiphany. However, I love the way in which the subject of religion is handled here. The message seems to be that it doesn’t matter what you call your god (or lack of), or where you go to pray (or meditate, or whatever). A truly spiritual person has no need for organised religion, and those who live their lives rigidly by some religious text, or go to war in the name of their god, are missing the point. A view I wholeheartedly approve of!

The first third of the book was rather slow going. It covered the significant experiences in Pi’s early life that would prepare him for his later ordeal, but I didn’t know that at the time and got rather impatient for the adventure to start. However, when it did start, I was utterly gripped. Pi’s endurance, ingenuity and courage in the face of a hopeless situation made me warm to him completely.

You would think that when more than half the book consists of his lonely existence adrift in the middle of a seemingly endless ocean, it would get a touch monotonous. Not a bit of it. I absolutely couldn’t put it down. I was fascinated by his development of survival techniques, by every moment of silent reflection and contemplation, and most especially by the way he managed to co-exist with 450 pounds of vicious carnivore in a small boat.

Of course, it’s all rather far-fetched. In fact it borders on science fiction in places but that didn’t bother me. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, leaving the reader to make up his/her own mind about the nature of Pi’s journey, but I think that was the whole point. You have to take what you’ve learned about Pi, and decide for yourself how the story ends.

I am starting to really like books that point out the flaws in religion, while giving the reader another way of looking at life. I had the same feeling after reading “His Dark Materials” (which, incidentally, I think will one day become the “holy” text for a whole new breed of anti-religion).

Overall I was very impressed. Pi is a thoroughly lovable character and the plot, though meagre, is gripping and moving. The story is told with warmth and humour, and the underlying themes of faith and spirit are certainly thought provoking. This is one of those books that you think about for a long time after putting it down, and I will certainly read it again one day.
Nadine (16th May 2005)

Review by Laurel
Rating 9/10
His name is Pi Patel. In 1978, this sixteen-year-old multi-religious Indian boy got lost in the Pacific Ocean, with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a royal Bengal tiger. The lone human survivor from the sinking of the ship Tsimtsum, he awaited the arrival of his rescuers in his twenty-six-foot long lifeboat. For how long, he did not and could not know. That is, if they ever came. Meanwhile, imprisoned on this seemingly infinite body of water, he struggled to survive, and of course, contemplated the meaning of life.

It may sound far-fetched but despite the fantastical nature of this tale, Yann Martel tells it with a plausibility in which even the most incredulous readers can easily get lost. Life of Pi, winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize, is an extremely well written book. The storytelling transcends the written words, bringing this highly original story vibrantly alive. Martel has a gift with words, conveying sights, smells and sounds in readers' minds. I found my mouth watering along with Pi's as I read about oothapam, rice idli and coconut yam kootu. I felt as if I experienced surviving a shipwreck firsthand. I sometimes had to reread some passages simply to absorb just how well Martel writes.

There are many layers to this book, though it is difficult to know where to begin, as the line between reality and fantasy is rather blurry. The world of Pi is one of a magical reality. There are moments when there is confusion, not sure of where reality begins or ends, and not in a bad way either.

The first narrator is an author (it is unclear whether this is Martel himself), who meets Pi Patel as an adult. The story of the life of Pi then starts to be told in the first person, interrupted in intervals by the author's brief descriptions of encounters with the adult Pi, lightly hinting at what happened. These reminders of "reality" grow less and less frequent until they fade away, letting the reader get taken up into the fable. The book, a novel within a novel, is labelled as fiction, but even so, it is hard to believe that Pi is not a real person. It is rare that a character seem more real than some people I know. In fact, the whole story makes readers want to believe, like any good tale should.

Although this novel is about the survival of a young man, his unfortunate adventure does not start until one-third through the book. Until then, his life is condensed into events and people that moulded Pi into what he is today. For the majority of the book, Pi is the sole human character. Pi is the only talking being literally as far as the eye can see, but it is not monotonous. He is a very interesting, complex and deep character who has a history, intelligence, a soul. With the readers he shares his spiritual pondering and his awe for the universe and everything it contains.

He too learns things about himself during his adventure. A devout Muslim, Catholic and Hindu who grew up in a zoo, he can be anything but boring. A gentle vegetarian soul who "just wants to love God", he is wise beyond his years, and has much to say about religion. His narrating makes anything sound fascinating, finding meaning in all. Describing everything with great detail, he uses wonderful metaphors to impart his wisdom. I doubt that if I were watching three-toed sloths, I would have "felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis in deep prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing." And this was how he sees the world.

Though Pi was deprived of human contact while at sea, he had plenty of animal companions, and as the son of a zookeeper, he knows a wealth of information on animal behaviour. The story revolves around nature and animals, a refreshing change from human drama: wild, harsh and dependent on instincts.

Surprisingly unpredictable, Martel carefully conceals the denouement until the final moment possible. He leads the reader in one direction only to reveal a quite unexpected and often ironic turn. It may contently and peacefully say one thing, but turn the page, and the next sentence could simply be * "The ship sank". There are many such amusing and ironic scenarios, in which the humour is not overt. However Pi tells these scenes with unbiased innocence, which makes it even funnier. Found at any bookstore, Life of Pi is suitable for young adults and older. However, not everyone will enjoy this book.

There are some exciting passages, however, some people may find some parts boring. Pi sometimes gets bored himself, which is understandable when one is cut off from human contact and any form of entertainment, with nothing but water below and the sky above.

This novel is not an action adventure: there are no high-speed car chases, but instead a boy's will to survive and the extremes it brings him to, as well as bloody instinct-driven animal fights. Still, whether or not it is your usual genre, it is most definitely worth a try. Upon finishing this book, you will have newfound knowledge and wisdom: whether it be survival skills, animal behaviour facts or something about faith, one thing will be for sure: no matter who you are, you will be touched by Pi and his unforgettable story.
Laurel (25th March 2005)

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