Life of Pi by Yann Matel (winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002)

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The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity – it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud. (p. 6)

The first time I picked up The Life of Pi, I abandoned it for being ridiculous. I did not recognize the beauty of the writing, nor the ethereal qualities of magicial realism. I was a very concrete girl, and thus at times, a foolish reader. A boy is named Piscene Molitor Patel after a swimming pool in Paris, because his family’s good friend loved swimming there the best? It was not an auspicious beginning to me.

Skip to the part where Pi’s father decides to leave Pondicherry, India for Winnipeg, Canada. The ship they are on, carrying several animals from the family’s zoo which has been sold, sinks. All that is left is Pi, an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. A tiger who has been named Richard Parker, after the befuddled intervention of a shipping clerk who got the papers mixed up between the tiger and the hunter who had found him.

But this time through, I am utterly entranced. I feel as if I am on the boat with Pi struggling to live. First, he has to go through the realization that his parents and brother are lost to him. Then, he has to figure out how it is that he can survive. Not only must he find food and water for himself, in the middle of the sea, he must find it for Richard Parker. He must be certain that he is not dinner for the tiger.

The way they survive is quite graphically depicted. Pi eats fish, and whatever he pulls from the ocean, raw, of course. He tears apart turtles, and exists on dorados, flying fish, and the water he can obtain from rainfall or flimsy stills which turn sea water into fresh.

When I place myself in his position, mentally, I am overwhelmed by the abundance in my life compared to the absence of practically everything required to live in Pi’s. Of course there is the trouble of finding enough food and water, but so much more is lost to him: family, human companionship, baths, entertainment of any sort. He reads the survival manual he has found perhaps a thousand times, for the lack of any book. Yet he is determined to live. His perseverance is one of my favorite things about him.

Near the conclusion of the novel, we come upon two very bizarre things. One, is the encounter that Pi has with another man. Pi has become temporarily blind, but he communicates with this voice on board his lifeboat. Until Richard Parker eats this man, and Pi recovers his eyesight to behold a dismembered body without a face, we are unsure if he exists at all.

Even more bizarre is a forest of floating trees, resting on seaweed and algae rather than earth. Pi and Richard Parker tentatively step out onto this island, and feel quite comfortable there with the pools of fresh water and fish which lie therein. But when Pi discovers a tree, and climbs it in hopes of enjoying its fruit, he finds that the ‘fruit’ is really a light ball, the contents of which is a human tooth. There are, in fact, all the teeth of a human skull inside each ball, and Pi comes to the conclusion that he cannot stay safely on this island as he had hoped; it is a carnivorous island which devours what comes its way.

Like the very best of animal stories, this one is ultimately about dealing with extreme loss, overcoming fear, testing one’s endurance, and being courageous beyond what one thinks he is capable of being. And for those who scoff at Pi’s story being true? I leave you with this quote:

“If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?”

“Mr. Patel-”

“Don’t you bully me with your politeness! Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” (p. 297)

6 thoughts on “Life of Pi by Yann Matel (winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002)”

  1. I started this book thinking I would not enjoy it (I don’t tend to relate well to books with animals) but like you I got swept along very quickly. The ending is clever too…

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  2. Thanks for writing about this book so vividly. I’ve not read it and, honestly, didn’t think it was anything I would enjoy at all. Now I’m reconsidering. Wonder how it would be on audio?

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  3. Bellezza, it seems it’s the right time for you to read this book. I haven’t read it, but I saw the movie a few years ago; I’d definitely like to read this novel someday. I’m glad that you’re connecting with it so beautifully now.

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  4. I loved it until I got to the floating island part and then became confused! The descriptions of the zoo in Pondicherry and the tiger on the boat were just fantastic though.

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