Ugh, I’m so behind. I finished Life of Pi at least a month ago now, so please bear with me as I try to remember my impressions of it. As I’m sure we’re all aware, there is a film adaptation of the novel due out around Thanksgiving, and I’m sure that it will be visually stunning, although judging from the trailers I think that they’ve made a fair amount of changes to the story. Not that one can blame them, entirely: Tom Hanks couldn’t even manage to hold interest all by himself on screen for a full movie. Perhaps what he needed was a tiger for a co-star…
Life of Pi tells of the extraordinary adventure of Pi Patel, who survived a shipwreck and spent nearly 300 days aboard a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean. Now, lots of people survive a shipwreck, and, if the lifeboat is well-stocked, maybe a year wouldn’t be that big a deal. But, you see, the ship that sank was not only carrying Pi and his family, but also numerous animals bound for zoos in North America. Initially, Pi is not the only survivor: he is joined in the lifeboat by a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Bengal tiger. Needless to say, it’s not very long before Pi and the tiger are the last ones standing. The story, according to a friend of Pi’s, will “make you believe in God,” but really it’s a testament to Pi’s faith, knowledge, ingenuity, and will to survive.
Parts of the novel are stronger than others. There’s the theological bit, which makes up the entire first part of the story, before Pi ever sets foot on a ship. Pi’s Indian, so he’s technically Hindu, but, as a child, he finds himself drawn to Christianity and Islam as well. What this has to do with the coming ordeal is never really made clear, and in fact, might as well have been a different story about a different person. The adventure story is the second part, and it’s pretty much riveting. If, like me, you grew up on books like Island of the Blue Dolphins or My Side of the Mountain, reading descriptions of the various means Pi uses to stay alive is interesting stuff. Running throughout the story is what must’ve accounted for mountains of zoological research on Martel’s part. Pi’s father is a zookeeper, and he himself becomes a zoologist, so there’s a great deal of in-depth information about the world of animals. It’s all quite interesting, but again, sometimes it gives one the notion of somehow reading two or three books at once.
Martel’s writing is excellent, and Pi’s narrative voice is at once simplistic and intelligent, so the story (once it really gets going) is a joy to read. The line between fantasy and what is conceivably real seems to be balanced at all times. I will say that perhaps Martel likes to hear himself talk just a wee bit, but in the final analysis I guess I liked hearing him talk too. The images conjured up are vivid and sometimes graphic. Pi’s predicament, while fantastical, is told in such a measured tone that if one cannot exactly imagine being in his shoes, one is still extremely invested in the outcome. By the time I reached the final chapters, I had swung from boredom (part I) to anticipation (part II) and was closing in on satisfaction.
And then…the third act. Martel throws the reader a curve ball; a mind trip. Once again it feels like you’re reading a new story, and this time, the end result is disappointing. I’m all for a well-executed twist, but in this case, the ambiguity of it only serves to cheapen the accomplishments of what has come before. Ultimately, it’s an enjoyable book to read, but it’s a little bit of a bumpy ride, I guess. If the writing itself weren’t so fluid, one might think it was just poor construction, but I think we must assume the shifts are purposeful. The nice thing about ambiguity is that one can choose what to believe in, like Pi himself, who chooses to combine aspects of different beliefs. It’s an accomplished novel; in hindsight, a pleasure to read as well as a thought-provoking journey.