LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel
Genre: Literature and Fiction
How Acquired: BookCrossing
Reading Began: January 17, 2005
Completed Reading: January 21, 2005
Overall rating: 8.5 out of ten
Recommendation to others: There are stories that will stay with you for as long as memory serves, stories that are good and then great and then mesmerizing, yet so simplistic in their grandeur. Life of Pi is more than I can ever describe, but not to be missed.
Comments: In typical storyteller fashion, Life of Pi begins with background information. So much background that I almost abandoned the reading of it. But something held me in the way the author used chapter after chapter to expound on animal behavior, on life in a zoo, on human interaction with species our own and foreign. These chapters, so rich with detail and research, held me with the knowledge that all of these mass elements would eventually prove useful to my understanding (nay, enjoyment) of the main story that I’d come to read. Trudging through, I was rewarded in ways I had never expected.
At the (literal) heart of the book is the story of Pi Patel, sixteen-year-old lone survivor of a sunken ship, forced to brave the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat shared with a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Those details alone should make the story outlandish in ways I might not embrace, but it also proved intoxicating. There is such depth of character in the animals, such pathos in Pi’s telling. This story is rich and complex, morose and engaging, horrific yet ultimately triumphant. No matter the turns that the story takes — and bizarre turns they are — I felt compelled to continue until the conclusion. I had to know how this young man survived. I had to know how he coped with his extreme circumstances. And I had to know what happened to Richard Parker, the tiger. By the time I reached the heart of the story, I read voraciously, as if I might not have another day with it. And even at the end, when Pi’s tale becomes so far-fetched that I couldn’t even pretend to think it might be plausible, I still pursued it until all things became clear and the author neatly tied a bow around the entire tale and laid it out before me. Not that it was needed; by the time Pi told a second version of how he survived the tragedy, it was already abundantly clear just what I had read before and what everything meant and just who was whom. And in that revelation is the beauty of the book.
Every critical praise heaped upon this story is not praise enough. Despite its early ramblings and excessive religious discourse (90% of which I do not share), this book is masterful. A story not easily forgotten.
In the wild, animals stick to the same paths for the same pressing reasons, season after season. In a zoo, if an animal is not in its normal place in its regular posture at the usual hour, it means something. It may be the reflection of nothing more than a minor change in the environment. A coiled hose left out by a keeper has made a menacing impression. A puddle has formed that bothers the animal. A ladder is making a shadow. But it could mean something more. At its worst, it could be that most dreaded thing to a zoo director: a symptom, a herald of trouble to come, a reason to inspect the dung, to cross-examine the keeper, to summon the vet. All this because a stork is not standing where it usually stands! …
Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zoo enclosure is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory. That it is so much smaller than what it would be in nature stands to reason. Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we have done for ourselves with houses: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out. … A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalent for an animal. Finding within it all the places it needs—a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc.—and finding that there is no need to go hunting, food appearing six days a week, an animal will take possession of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild, exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its species. Once this moving-in ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder, and it will behave in the same way within its enclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, defending it tooth and nail should it be invaded. … One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Chapter 4 (p. 18-20)
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. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. Chapter 7 (p. 31)
The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you. Chapter 57 (p. 179)
I heard a splash. I looked down at the water. I gasped. I thought I was alone. The stillness in the air, the glory of the light, the feeling of comparative safety—all had made me think so. …
With just one glance I discovered that the sea is a city. Just below me, all around, unsuspected by me, were highways, boulevards, streets and roundabouts bustling with submarine traffic. In water that was dense, glassy and flecked by millions of lit-up specks of plankton, fish like trucks and buses and cars and bicycles and pedestrians were madly racing about, no doubt honking and hollering at each other. The predominant colour was green. At multiple depths, as far as I could see, there were evanescent trails of phosphorescent green bubbles, the wake of speeding fish. As soon as one trail faded, another appeared. These trails came from all directions and disappeared in all directions. They were like those time-exposure photographs you see of cities at night, with the long red streaks made by the tail lights of cars. Except that here the cars were driving above and under each other as if they were on interchanges that were stacked ten storeys high. And here the cars were of the craziest colours. The dorados— there must have been over fifty patrolling beneath the raft—showed off their bright gold, blue and green as they whisked by. Other fish that I could not identify were yellow, brown, silver, blue, red, pink, green, white, in all kinds of combinations, solid, streaked and speckled. Only the sharks stubbornly refused to be colourful. But whatever the size or colour of a vehicle, one thing was constant: the furious driving. There were many collisions—all involving fatalities, I’m afraid—and a number of cars spun wildy out of control and collided against barriers, bursting above the surface of the water and splashing down in showers of luminescence. I gazed upon this urban hurly-burly like someone observing a city from a hot-air balloon. It was a spectacle wondrous and awe-inspiring. This is surely what Tokyo must look like at rush hour. Chapter 59 (p. 194-195)
High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God. Chapter 93 (p. 315)