I will concede right off the bat that Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, will not appeal to everyone. But I’ve got to tell you – dude can write.
The book was a best seller when it was published, and won a bunch of awards and other critical praise, but I resisted reading it for years. I got the impression, from the cover illustration, that the book involved a guy and a tiger that sat in a boat and talked to each other. I have nearly zero tolerance for “magic realism,” as it is called in literature – a dislike that probably revokes my literary credentials. (I once eagerly bought and read the fanatically acclaimed One Hundred Years of Solitude – and I hated it.)
Anyway, my oldest brother and I were at Powell’s, an independent bookstore that takes up an entire city block and goes on for days. (Every time I go in there, I’m tempted to tie a bell and a rope around my ankle, in case I need to be hauled out like an Old Testament priest.) We were in the main lobby, hanging out by the bargain table, which is my section of choice these post-income days. My brother saw Life of Pi on the table and said that I should get it.
“I don’t do talking tigers,” I said. I pointedly turned to a different book.
“I don’t think that’s what it’s about,” he protested.
I scowled and sighed, then picked up Life of Pi and flipped through it. I started reading passages aloud to my brother. Within minutes, we were bent double over the table, chortling madly while the other customers gave us a wide berth. The plot isn’t a comedy; the writing is just that marvelously clever. Who was I to resist? I bought the book.
Life of Pi is separated into three sections. (The author divides it up differently than I do. I’ll give you my version.) The first part sets up the main character (Pi’s) childhood in India. It is part narrative, part philosophical conversation. The story tracks Pi as he learns about animals from his zookeeper father, and it follows his childish attempt to embrace three very different religions at once. The author’s descriptions of zoo animal habits and treatment are fascinating. The appealing qualities of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism are all presented with equal clarity and tenderness. There are many wonderful passages in this section. At one point, Pi muses:
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…But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
The second section is the book’s tour de force – and it is sensational. Pi’s father closes down the zoo and decides to take his family and all the animals to North America. Their ship goes down in the Pacific Ocean. Pi makes it onto a lifeboat; the only other survivors are a small group of animals, which includes a large tiger. The tiger quickly kills the other animals, and Pi survives on the lifeboat, with the tiger, for 227 days. This sounds really bizarre, I know – but Martel’s writing is so elegant and rich in detail that you would swear that all of this had actually happened to him. It’s simply riveting. By the end of this part, I felt I knew precisely what it would be like to be set adrift on a small boat with a large tiger for a long period of time.
And then, in the third part, the story takes a swan dive into a sea of surrealism, and loses me completely. Pi takes refuge on an algae island that has trees that come alive and consume creatures at night. There are – oh, I don’t even know what there are. This section is mercifully short. I’m quite sure it is supposed to symbolize something, but I’m either not smart enough or not weird enough to figure it out.
At the end, there are five chapters of wrap-up that turn the story on its head. There is a major twist that may or may not be real. My oldest brother, who is a good deal more sophisticated than I am, enjoyed the ending very much, when he borrowed the book. So there you go.
Wait – is this a recommendation, or not? Well…yes. Although the story itself is more than a little peculiar, and it gets macabre, the prose is so lovely that even the most dreadful parts are not disgusting. The book is a treat for writers, because Martel’s writing is exceptional. As for non-writers – if you don’t mind some strangeness, Life of Pi tells a terribly interesting story.
Just watch out for those ridiculous magical trees.