Life of Pi

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a long time folks. I grabbed it from my mom, oh, like 5 years ago or so. I remember a time when it seemed like everybody was reading this book. I would walk through airports and see people reading it all over the place. I grabbed it about 10 times in the last few years with the intent to read it, but it never took.

I finally started in earnest this month.

It’s been a rough reading month. I’m busy with work stuff, home stuff, and family stuff. I’m hoping to finish two books, but it will be tight. I started off this year at my 40 book pace but I’ve fallen off a little. I have some catching up to do huh?

** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **

I’ll tell you, it’s a cool book. I liked it but I never got sucked into it, so it was a slow read, but still cool. It’s a fantastical story about a boy who’s family owns a zoo in India. They decide to move the whole thing to Canada, but on the way the ship sinks and brings all of Pi’s family and most of the animals with it. Pi makes it to a lifeboat with an orangutan, zebra, hyena, and tiger. The tiger eats the animals but not Pi. The meat of the book is the story of how Pi survived the ordeal.

Then the ending throws a funny and thought-provoking curveball that is so chock full of symbolism that much of it was lost on me. After the fact, I’ve spent a fair amount of time sorting through the Amazon reviews of this book (there are like 2,000 of them) trying to uncover the things that I missed.

Here are the big questions that book could prompt some thought on:

  1. Did Pi just make up the story with the tiger?
  2. Is this book pro-religion or anti-religion, or does it matter?
  3. What does this book say about stories and human nature?

I wonder if I would have gotten more out of this had I gone into this endeavor more aware of the potential messages. Would I have enjoyed it more or less? I certainly would not want to have read any of the Amazon reviews because of the plot killers. But I think I would have liked to have known that there could be widely-varied interpretations. Maybe part of the problem is that I read so many books that are message-free (mysteries, thrillers, non-fiction) that I don’t go into them with an exploratory mind.

For instance, this is a thought-provoking passage (page 28 of the trade paperback):

I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. Bet we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

This is Pi talking, actually.  It may have appeared, at this point, that we were in for a pro-religion ride. Pi is, after all, a practicing Christian, Muslim, and Hindu and this clearly uses Christ as a role model for the value of doubt. But when the book is finished, no clarity on religion is obtained, and I think Martel is very satisfied with that. As am I. I’m not interested in the implications for religion, atheism, or agnosticism really.

The top two Amazon reviews give the book 5 stars and 3 stars (out of 5). I suggest reading them after reading the book because they promote further contemplation. This idea of stories being so important to how we make sense of the world is the main take-away for me. Tyler Cowen mentioned a similar point about the value of stories in his book Create Your Own Economy but I didn’t write about it in my take (upon reflection, I’m disappointed in myself for that). Cowen seemed to say that stories, regardless of whether they come from books, TV, movies, friends, or the web, are important for general enjoyment in life.

I like stories, a whole bunch.

Another thing I want to mention – an item about the book that made it strange for me – was the trip to the mysterious island of vegetation that Pi and the tiger visited near the end of the ordeal. It felt oddly like The Ruins, which actually kind of ruined (no pun intended) this part of the book for me. I’m certainly not accusing Martel of ripping off another book, especially since Life of Pi was written before The Ruins. But for me, having read The Ruins first, it made the idea of vegetation being killers feel like I’ve already been there, in a horror book nonetheless.

Thanks Mr. Martel for a good read.