Book Review: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Posted on Wednesday, November 7th, 2012
After finishing my bachelors degree, and still undecided about whether or not I wanted to pursue a masters degree, I decided to take online classes to keep up my writing skills. I was lucky enough in one of these classes to be given the assignment of reading Yann Martel’s Fantasy/Adventure novel The Life of Pi.
Though a little skeptic at first of a book where a boy is trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger in the middle of the Pacific, I was astonished by the literary qualities it possessed and realized soon after I began reading that it is a masterpiece of contemporary literature and an incredibly intriguing read. This story has not only entertained millions of readers, but has also been made into a feature length movie that will be out in theatres this year!
We are first introduced to our protagonist Piscine “Pi” Patel, a student of religion and animal science in Canada. Pi describes his educational triumphs and disappointments by explaining how “when a person suffers a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.” He even describes his life as a Momento Mori painting, where there is constantly a grinning skeleton at his side. As a student of animal science and the son of a late zookeeper, animals consume Pi’s life and he often compares those he works with to animals. In a humorous statement he compares three toed Sloths to his classmates, whom he described as “muddled agnostics that didn’t know which way was up.
As a young boy Pi worked at his family’s zoo in Pondicherry, India. Pi’s father decides to move to Canada, taking all their zoo animals with them. This proves to be a rather large and painstaking endeavor with many of the crew not treating them with any respect, until an incredible storm threatens the ship, sending the animals scurrying around the corridors and up on the deck just as the crew and passengers are. With the ship sinking, Pi takes refuge on a lifeboat that is nearly destroyed by the crashing waves. However, as the storm settles and the enormous ship sinks to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, Pi discovers that he’s not the only one aboard the lifeboat.
Being joined on the lifeboat by an injured zebra, orangutan named Orange Juice, spotted hyena and Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, he imagines phone calls being frantically made for his relief, and even pilots running to their planes and helicopters without even bothering to tie their shoelaces. However, he still manages to spend 227 days on that lifeboat as one by one of the creatures perish from the elements, and each other.
This story is so compelling because the voice of the tortured Pi contains so much imagery and description in each sentence. We understand why he counts himself among one who has suffered immensely as he explains how he has had so many bad nights, that none of them, not even a particular one on the boat, has been named the champion. However, he does differentiate his suffering between his bad and worse nights by describing the worst among them as when he had the strength to fully understand what he was experiencing.
Just as he animalized his college classmates to the simplicity of a three-toed sloth, he humanized the animals that accompanied him throughout his journey on the pacific. After having only contact with these creatures, he tends to see himself as just another animal who has lost everything in the world. He wants for nothing more than water and enough food to sustain his life, just like the rest of the boat’s residents. Having seen the orangutan give birth to twins back in Pondicherry, Pi claims that he observes Orange Juice staring out at the water on several occasions, thinking of her “prized” twins.”
As the occupants of the boat begin to dwindle, Pi is left with only the Tiger, and soon his fishing becomes a way not only to feed himself, but to feed Richard Parker and to establish himself as the Alpha animal on the boat. Pi is delirious throughout half of the 227 days on the lifeboat until his boat washes up on the coast of Mexico, allowing Richard Parker to escape into a costal jungle and leaving him to be rescued alone.
With the book such an amazing read, and the movie coming to theatres soon, I’ll leave the ending to be discovered for yourselves. However, a little hint is that as a boy and then man with such a talent for personifying animals, and in retrospect, animalizing humans, a surprise retelling of his story to the authorities will leave you haunted well after the tale is told.
This book review was written by Lucy Markham.
Lucy Markham has a Bachelor’s Degree in English: creative writing from the University of Florida and worked as an academic and career counselor for three years before pursuing her Master’s degree in Education. She enjoys blogging, creative writing and discovering new books.