Piscine Patel is the young son of an Indian zookeeper. A deeply religious boy, he loves every sign of God, even in the animals that his father keeps. When Pi’s family is forced to leave their native India and move to Canada, many of the zoo’s animals in tow on a massive industrial boat, Pi is alternately excited and devastated. When the ship sinks, though, and Pi must battle for his life, devastation, survival, and even religion take on new meaning.
Life of Pi is a book that I had kicking around for more than four years, knowing that other people had loved it but somehow never making the time to read it for myself. The release of the film, and the possibility that I might see a film before I’d read the book that inspired it (gasp), led me to finally pick it up and see for myself what all the fuss was about. What I found was perhaps the first book featuring magical realism that I’ve enjoyed and a striking tale about survival and stories and, in the end, true meaning and whether or not it matters.
I admit that I was a bit perplexed when I first started reading. Nearly a third of the book takes place before Pi has even left India and a surprising chunk of that part of the book is consumed by his religious nature. He decides that he believes in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, praying and taking mentors for each religion. He just wants to worship God, and all ways of worshipping God are sacred to him, an idea which I found fascinating but which didn’t seem related to the part of the book that I knew about, which was the part where he is on a lifeboat with a tiger.
It all makes perfect sense in the end, fortunately, and I think what Martel is trying to comment on is really the nature of story. If you read to the end of the book, he offers two explanations for what happened to Pi on the lifeboat, but it doesn’t really matter what truly happened. Either explanation can be true; one just requires more of a leap of faith than the other. In such a way, religions require that leap of faith, that belief, but at the core of them, the stories are human. I’m an atheist myself but I found the whole story and the end fascinating. It wasn’t what I’d expected at all, and I immediately felt that this is a book I’d like to talk about in a lot more depth, which might take on new significance the more it’s considered.
Regardless of how you take the story within this book’s pages, it’s a moving portrayal of Pi’s spirit and will to survive in the face of elements clearly much larger than he is. Definitely a book worth reading – and now I’m looking forward to seeing the film!
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