“I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me” (Martel, 107). Yowza. This quote encapsulates Pi Patel’s struggles in the 2001 novel, Life of Pi*. Suffice to say that I’m not giving away any major plot points, considering the poster of the movie adaptation looks like this:
Although the movie is very visually appealing, the book takes the cake. Pi’s journey, albeit fictional, is emotional to witness as a reader. Any tale of human resilience in the face of such calamitous odds makes you feel proud to be a part of the race. The story is structured as a first-person account, based on a fictional interview that the author, Yann Martel, has with Pi Patel. It follows Pi’s life in India >> sea voyage to Canada with animal cargo (his parents are zookeepers) >> abrupt sinking of the ship, which results in Pi and a handful of dangerous animals left on a lifeboat as the only survivors >> 227 brutal days stranded at sea >> eventual rescue. I’m exhausted just typing that.
There are many things I expect from a castaway book. Pi has a hallucinatory period in which he goes blind, and he believes that he’s able to speak to the tiger, who is talking in a French accent. That’s amusing, but it’s not necessarily shocking, given the circumstances. Additionally, when animals are involved, I presume that I’ll learn at least some basic facts about the species. Martel teaches the reader about numerous animals in a straightforward voice that isn’t too scholarly. He doesn’t go all zoologist on you, and I came away with quite a bit of practical knowledge.
I also anticipate some sort of religious aspect; if I survived such a wild series of events, I’d probably be thanking God too. What I did not anticipate is Pi’s particularly refreshing, unique take on God. Pi has a brilliantly inclusive opinion on religion, evident in the fact that he’s a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. The prophets and gods of each religion resonate with him in compelling ways, and he focuses on what he considers to be the core of each religion, rather than get caught up in peripheral details that might lead to contradiction between the faiths. His convictions are personal and he presents them without imposition.
Pi’s belief in a higher power sustains him during his suffering, because he feels that both good and bad emanate from a wholeness of the universe beyond his understanding. Religion gives him dignity, which lifts his spirits when his stout vegetarianism is compromised by the inevitabilities of starvation. He warns against human arrogance in the face of something as grand as divinity, and he compares this dynamic to the relationship between him and the beautiful, horrific, powerful beast in his lifeboat. The acknowledgement that he is but a microcosm of the divine provides him a mentality that helps him find peace while persevering. He admits, “I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still” (Martel, 177).
The novel reminds me of The Old Man and the Sea for several reasons. One—the most obvious—is that the sea is pertinent in both novels. We see the main character’s relationship with their fellow creatures and watch how persistence in the face of the elements affects that relationship. Taking a step further, I recognize humility in the face of majesty. Pi and Santiago (the fisherman in Hemingway’s novel) exude a modest reverence for the world around them, which makes us respect and root for them. Neither Hemingway nor Martel force their main characters on readers; they present them fairly unadorned and let us be the judge.
I, for one, find Pi to be an incredible testament to the goodness in humans. While reading, I was continuously inspired by his story (and Martel’s storytelling abilities), such that I had to remind myself that the details didn’t actually occur. Of course, several people in real life have survived being lost at sea, and similarly harrowing feats occur on a regular basis outside of the ocean. But there is something about Martel’s use of an imaginary story that more aptly captures the vibrancy, range, and absurdities of human experience (as fiction typically does, IMO). As such, Life of Pi receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.
*Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. New York: Harcourt Books, 2001. Print.