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Review: Life of Pi, by Yann Martell

Life of Pi, by Yann Martell, Illustrated by Tomislav Torjanac. Harcourt, Inc. ©2001

What an ending! I’m sobbing, grieving for Piscine Molitor Patel! What a final twist, forcing me as a reader to decide between belief or disbelief regarding Pi’s survival story.

I favor the story with the animals and believe that the human story is one that Pi’s wishes had happened—however, then I think that the animal story is all imagined, that Pi took the psychological form of the tiger as a means of survival, that telling the story through the metaphors of zoo animals was the only way he could make sense of his trauma without completely losing all hope, his very sanity. Oh, poor, poor, Pi. Poor, poor, Pi!

Life of Pi is split into 3 parts: Part 1, “Toronto and Pondicherry,” before the ship wreck; Part 2, “The Pacific Ocean,” the shipwreck and 227 days of survival; and Part 3, “Benito Juarez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico,” back on land with an interview.

Part 1 sets up Pi’s family life and establishes Pi, his family (brother, father, and mother) and friends. We become invested in each of these characters just as Pi is and when he loses his family, we feel loss too.

Part 2 depicts the minute by minute, day by day struggle for survival and the relationship Pi develops with Richard Parker, the royal Bengal tiger from his father’s zoo. A final scene with a surreal, gigantic floating island of supernatural, but evil sea algae diverges from the pattern.

In Part 3, two Japanese men, representatives of the shipping company that owned the cargo ship, the Tsimtsum, conduct an interivew with Pi (a rather humorous one) in order to find clues as to how and why the ship sank. The tape recorded conversation reveals Pi’s story.

The two men don’t believe Pi’s initial story with the animals so Pi gives them an alternate story with his mother (orangutan), a sailor (zebra), the cook (hyena), and himself (tiger) as the sole survivors on the lifeboat that includes episodes of cannibalism, grief, and evil, and the desperate, primitive behaviors of survival.

By giving us Pi’s family, name origin, and spiritual groundings (in all 3 major religions: Christianity, Moslem, and Hindi faiths), Martell establishes a connection, a deep sympathy, and empathy for this young boy of 16 years who struggles to make his own way in the world. In the process he trades his childhood nickname “Pissing” for the infinitely beautiful and intriguing name of “Pi,” and creates his own concoction of love and god.

The play by play detail of survival in Part 2 immerses us in the stark realities of a ship wreck survivor and how after his fair share of mistakes, Pi overcomes each challenge with intelligent, thoughtful actions. We believe the “dream” of the story; we believe and are right there beside Pi as he struggles physically and psychologically for survival. When Martell brings us to the mysterious, surreal algae island, it seems plausible as a delusion induced by Pi’s starvation. However, Martell crafts and explains the island and its evil inner workings to such a logical conclusion that we believe that it may be just so. We believe again!

It takes the two Japanese gentlemen and their search for the “hard facts” that convinces Pi to tell a story that would be more likely, yet is more horrifying than his original story; in its brevity, his alternate story expresses more desolation and utter god-forsakeness than the fantastical survival of the fittest in the menagerie of animals in the lifeboat.

After thinking this through more and after writing my thoughts down, I realize that when I read the last chapters of the book, I wanted so much to believe Pi’s first story with Richard Parker. By all means I’d have preferred the first story. Now I realize that the second story, the brief and horrific account of the first few weeks with an abyss of blank narration to account for the rest of the 227 days, days of complete isolation, is what I believe to be the true “hard facts.”

This second version, this stark, edgy account of insanity and survival, wounds my sense of life balance and optimism as I compare it to the original detailed narrative. The two tales in their metaphorical partnership compel me to comprehend more deeply the mourning, desolation, and despair of Piscine Molitor Patel’s survival and loss.