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Reading: Life of Pi

Life of Pi, Illustrated
Life of Pi, Illustrated by Yann Martel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example—I wonder—could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less?

Pi’s story does indeed play out in a hundred chapters, but only through some small element of cheating. Several chapters are just a couple of paragraphs long. One is just two words. Chapter breaks come almost arbitrarily, the next chapter continuing on the same subject. Across thirteen chapters Pi embraces Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam, reflects upon the nature of the divine, how atheists and agnostics view the world, the reaction when it was discovered he was following three separate religions, his request to continue with multiple religions, his parents’ verdict, and the result of that verdict. It’s not really thirteen chapters’ worth of story.

It sounds like a small complaint and in many ways it is, but I like my chapters to be meaty chunks of narrative that advance the story, so for me the book had a very stop-start feel to it, chapters not providing that break or advancement that I expected. It was only upon reading the above quote, which comes right near the end of the book, that the reason for that structure was explained, though I didn’t feel it was justified for that.

Niggling issues with structure aside, The Life of Pi is presented as the autobiographical account of the fictional and extraordinary Piscine Molitor Patel. It opens with his early life in India as the son of a zookeeper, detailing what he learns about people, animals and faith, before the political situation encourages his family to take their animals across the Pacific and into Canada. The bulk of the story focuses on Pi being cast away on a lifeboat with only the tiger Richard Parker for company, and the highs and lows that come from a journey that ends with him being the longest-surviving person ever to be shipwrecked.

I was so full of trust in them that I felt grateful as they carried me in the air. Only when they threw me overboard did I begin to have doubts.

That latter fact is revealed early on, there’s no mystery to whether Pi survives. The story is Pi’s account of that survival, told years later with all the comfort that distance provides. Pi’s funny, conversational, easy-going style keeps it from being a harrowing tale of his ordeal, for that’s not the aim. It’s a story of hope, of perseverance, of companionship in hard times, of finding beauty in the darkest moments, and of faith.

Faith is of particular importance to Pi, whose love of his god is so great that he can’t even contain himself to one religion. As an atheist myself I inevitably bounced off a lot of these moments, especially when Pi tries to explain atheism and agnosticism and gets them wrong. Pi’s experiences on the lifeboat contain more suffering that most people will experience in a lifetime, and at no time does his god provide any relief. At one low point in his ordeal Pi even says:

But God’s hat was always unravelling. God’s pants were falling apart. God’s cat was a constant danger. God’s ark was a jail. God’s wide acres were slowly killing me. God’s ear didn’t seem to be listening. Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out. It was a hell beyond expression.

It seems like he could be just about to make the obvious next conclusion, that God’s ear no more exists than the rest of God, but then the above sentences are immediately followed with:

I thank God it always passed. A school of fish appeared around the net or a knot cried out to be reknotted. Or I thought of my family, of how they were spared this terrible agony. The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving.

There’s nothing wrong with finding comfort in anything you can, of course, not when the situation is so dire, I just found it disappointing that Pi repeatedly took paths that I not only view as wrong, but genuinely beyond my comprehension. Pi’s position is that truth is ultimately irrelevant if the outcome is the same, and it’s better then to believe beautiful, comforting lies than just accept reality for all it’s mix of beauty of ugliness.

Pi’s faith is nothing to condemn him for though, and doesn’t in any way detract from the fact that he’s an incredible human being. Dumped into one of the worst situations imaginable, he embarks on an epic journey of survival, soldiers on where others would disappear into despair, and lives to tell a unique, funny, moving and memorable story.

Am in lifeboat. Pi Patel my name. Have some food, some water, but Bengal tiger a serious problem.

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