The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, Review

A review of the novel The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, winner of the 2002 Mann Booker Prize, in time for tomorrow's release of Ang Lee's film adaptation. This book is a MUST READ.


The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is his Mona Lisa; his Symphony #7; his Citizen Kane. It is the most gripping tale that I have ever read. The book tells the story of a young Indian boy named Piscine Patel, aka Pi, and his unfortunate circumstance of being lost at sea. So, what separates this story from all of the other lost at sea survival novels? Here’s the kicker–he’s stuck in a lifeboat with a massive Tiger, as well as some other wild animals from his father’s zoo, such as a hyena, orangutan and a zebra with a broken leg.

The novel, which is a Man-Booker Prize winner by the way, is written in three separate sections. The first section tells the story of Pi as a boy growing up in India as the son of a zookeeper. Because Pi spent the majority of his childhood at his father’s zoo he gained a breadth of knowledge about animals and their behaviors–knowledge that would prove useful later in his life.

Pi battles with religious identification as he practices through numerous theologies to find the best one. He tries Muslin, Christian, Hindu, Agnosticism, but does not decide on which one fits him the best. Religion is a concept that everyone struggles with as a child. If you are a person who has turned away by discussions of faith, do not write this book off as a religious statement–because it is so much more than that. Keep reading on to section 2. Anyway, Pi’s zookeeper father decides to move the family to Canada, so he loads a boat up with all of his animals and sets sail to North America. The boat sinks, which is when our story of Pi really begins.

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The second section of the novel is about his adventures at sea, as he is now stuck in a lifeboat with wild animals. The tale that ensues is magical; phenomenal; extraordinary. While the tale is truly wild, Martel writes it in a way that still remains believable, given the circumstances of Pi’s childhood at a zoo. This section of the book focuses on Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker. I should probably notify you that Richard Parker is the giant Bengal tiger. Pi’s first reaction to seeing Richard Parker is to jump off the lifeboat. Unfortunately for him, the waters aren’t much safer, as they are infested with sharks. So Pi, reluctantly, reboards the lifeboat. He creates a makeshift raft that he lets float closely behind the lifeboat and lives on that while he focuses on training Richard Parker (this is where his knowledge of animals comes into play).

Pi establishes a bond with the tiger. Their journey together is an unforgettable story. Pi struggles with surviving and helping the tiger to survive. They fish from the sea and use the sun to cleanse the sea water for fresh water (not as easy as it sounds). Pi and Parker do not get nearly enough food and then things really start getting hairy. Their hunger begins taking a toll on their physicality. They are slowly starving. Pi loses his vision and they come across a blind man also said to be lost at sea who wants to board Pi’s ship and eat him. Richard Parker eats the man and the tears from the horror clear up Pi’s vision.

Pi and the tiger then come across a floating island filled with algae and meerkats–yes, meerkats. The meerkats in the story create a sort of eerily large group of wild animals and the way they work together is astonishing. Pi begins to find strange things on the island, such as a human tooth and it scares him enough to leave with the tiger. This creates an interesting dilemma for Pi–do you leave the big scary tiger on the island to die, or do you take him with you…back aboard a small lifeboat at sea? Pi waits for Richard Parker to board and the two set sail for the open sea.

After seven months on a lifeboat, Pi and Richard Parker find land and their lifeboat breaches the Mexican shore. After 277 days together, Richard Parker jumps off the boat and heads into the nearby woods of the Mexican beach. Pi never sees the tiger again. Two men find Pi on the beach and rescue him. Pi tells the men his story.

The third part of the novel is Pi sitting down with the two men and telling them his story of being lost at sea. He firsts tells the story the novel already told–the story of the tiger, hyena, orangutan, zebra and the blind man. The men do not believe Pi’s story, so he tells them a second story. This second story is about his mother, a sailor that broke his leg and a cook who was trying to survive via cannibalism. In the second story, the cook cuts off the sailor’s leg and eats him to survive. The cook kills Pi’s mother and then Pi kills the cook. The second story is more realistic than his first, but obviously more horrific. Pi asks the men which story they prefer and they tell him they prefer the animal story and the three agree that the animal story is the true story and that is what they write down on paper.

The ending of the novel in which Pi tells his story to the two men is what makes this book so creative. It is guaranteed to make readers go back and read the story again to see if everything that happened on the lifeboat could really happen if the animals were people, instead. The ending has religious undertones as well. If readers choose to believe in Pi’s animal story (which is fantastical and unrealistic) then they are religious. If readers choose to believe in Pi’s human story (which is realistic and undeniably dolorous), then they are atheists because they choose not to believe. And, if readers cannot choose either story to be true, then they can be considered agnostic.

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Within The Life Of Pi there is a sort of mini story told by Pi about some of his zoo animals. In the story, there is a young wild rhino named Peak that stops eating due to lack of social interaction with his species. Pi’s father decides to put Peak in with the goats to see if this will help the rhino eat and it does. It is a beautiful story of a rhino living peacefully amongst goats; two different kind of beings who are “okay” with each other; two races able to live without fear. It is a truly moving story within the story that has nothing to do with the big picture of Life of Pi, but is a touching observation by the young boy.

Sometimes, people struggle with the necessity to find truth or to just believe. That idea is what this book is all about; do you believe because it is a better story, or do you only rely on factual evidence? Myself–I am more of a factual evidence kind of guy; I will not just believe something to be true or untrue, for that matter. The parallels Yann creates between the belief in god and the belief in Pi’s story lets readers take their own perspective at the end of the novel, instead of imposing his own views upon the reader.

The most resonating theme in the book, for me at least, is that your enemy might not truly be your enemy at all. The dynamic created between Pi and the tiger is unique. Obviously, a boy trapped on a small boat with a tiger would assume that tiger to be a threat. But, as we find out during the tale, the tiger has no interest in devouring Pi, so Pi’s fear of the tiger was not necessary to begin with. It gives readers the feeling that Pi wasted his time fearing the tiger, such as people blindly waste their time fearing something they need not fear.

The Life of Pi is my favorite book for a reason. It is a thought provoking and wildly creative story of survival at sea. While the novel is a great story on its own and without any further analysis, Martel created a fantastically written story that plays with timeless life lessons in theology, man versus fear, and survival. The book is well deserving of the 2002 Man Booker prize, and receives a full 5 stars from me. The film adaptation by Ang Lee comes out on Wednesday and I have never been more excited for a movie’s release than I am for The Life of Pi.