Thursday, June 30, 2016

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Title: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Random House of Canada (2001) 

I take full responsibility for this month's pick. Life of Pi is my favorite book. I've been wanting to add it to our series for a few years now but never could bring myself to watch the movie. Finally, I asked if it was ok to add it even if I had no intention of ever watching the movie. Michael, ever a generous friend and partner in crime, readily agreed and here we are.

I remember first hearing about the rights being sold (many, many years ago now; long before the movie was ever filmed) and thinking how? HOW?? It's not possible! But beyond my limited ability to imagine an adaptation of this story what it really came down to is the fact that Pi, his view of life, and his incredible journey are fully alive in my mind. The connection I have with this book is the perfect expression, embodiment even, of my connection with Books. When a story comes alive in the mind it is the greatest, most satisfying, link between artist and consumer. It's the lightning we're all trying to catch every time we open a book. This is my lightning in a bottle. I sincerely hope you, Dear Reader, have one as well (here's a list of my faves; maybe you'll find one there:).

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Life of Pi 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Truly, I was going to try to do a proper review with attempts at objectivity yadda yadda yadda but since this is my favorite book all attempts merely spiraled into a love letter to one of my favorite reads so, um, hope you enjoy anyway? NB: I usually aim to keep my posts spoiler free but beware


Pi Patel, devotee of God/s and religion (and take backer of his name) is immigrating with his family to Canada in the 70s. The ship carrying them and some animals destined for new zoos (the former family business is zookeeping) sinks in the Pacific. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with some very aggressive castaways. This book is the story of his survival. 

Brother, there's something I forgot to mention.

My love of this book is not limited to story and character. I think it's an amazing piece of craft. The writing is exquisite and the voice is impeccable. The richness of the writing is as layered as the story it tells.

I was more afraid that in a few words thrown out he might destroy something that I loved.

Pi is at once naive and keenly observant of the world. I think it's the secret to his resilience and what makes him uniquely suited to surviving his ordeal at sea.

The obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologists.

I'm particularly fond of this line as my enjoyment of this book has a lot to do with putting me and my interpretation at the center of it. Seems fitting. But I suspect a serious streak of self-consciousness in Martel, as well.

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless.

Also a compelling line, not only for its relevance to the theme of the book but because, unlike the reviewer at The New Yorker (according to the backcopy anyway) I do not think the book is "an impassioned defense of zoos" but an impassioned defense of religion. It's why I didn't just say that Pi is a devotee of God/s. He is also quite drawn to religion. I think he finds as much satisfaction in the ceremonies and meditation of devotion as he does in simple faith. In fact, I'd argue that God/s without religion would not appeal to Pi at all. He might even call that "dry, yeastless factuality."

I mean compared to other animals, of course. Next to Richard Parker, I was deaf, blind and nose-dead. 

I distinctly remember first reading this book and thinking "Pi, what is wrong with you? Why are you hitting Richard Parker over the head instead of helping him?" And then, "Wait, what?" as I flipped back through the book wondering how it was I never noticed Richard Parker was a zoo animal and not a school friend. It's very nicely done subterfuge because it makes no difference to the story if you did think Richard Parker was a tiger (and I'd be curious to know how many readers weren't fooled) and, more importantly, it prepares the reader for what is to come. Things are perhaps not what they seem. Pay attention. It's a beautiful set-up.

There couldn't be both a hyena and a tiger in such a small space.

No, indeed, Pi there couldn't. If you've read this book only once I highly recommend reading it again. The book is filled with these gorgeous lines of double meaning. But, thankfully, this is not a coy piece of work. Each well-chosen word speaks to the situation at hand but a re-read shows that there is more at hand than one at first suspects.

Oh, the delight of the manufactured good, the man-made device, the created thing!

Did I mention that lovely voice? This book is filled with horrors but you're as likely to laugh and smile as despair. The tone is absolutely dead-on and I think I've never seen such excellent use of exclamation marks (Yep, I've just praised the punctuation, I told you this was a love letter!).

I will tell you a secret: a part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.

I've never looked it up but I really hope there is a survival manual out there as shown in the book.

Only one important topic was not addressed: the establishing of alpha-omega relationships with major lifeboat pests.

What I can't help wondering is at what point did Pi start telling this story? I suspect it's right around:

I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. 

I've said already that I think this is an impassioned defense of religion (which, by the way, has yet to be effective for this reader) but I've never been able to reconcile that with its comparison to zoos. Perhaps that's part of the expression of Pi's naivete. He seems to think it makes no difference to go with "the better story" but the sad fact of life is that it does. Stories, better or otherwise, do not exist in a vacuum but in societies. What society does with a story matters.

I continued to disbelieve my eyes. But it was a thrill to be deluded in such a high-quality way.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 
My much read and beloved copy

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard


  1. Wow, what a wonderful love letter for this pretty remarkable work. As luck would have it, I came late to both the film and its source material. It was most interesting, since the viewing of the film came way before reading this novel (listening, y'know…and the audiobook narrator did splendid work) to wonder how this would have changed my perspective toward Ang Lee's adaptation. I was fairly stunned as the novel is not what I'd consider 'PG-rated', like the film.

    Even though I knew approximately what I was getting with the book, the differences can be significant at times. Perhaps that made it fairly absorbing even knowing the gist of the story before turning a page. Yeah, what you said about how cleverly Martel managed the material and its double-meanings was impressive without being overly drool is quite a feat of writing.

    Character-development, too. So glad you suggested it, even though you won't watch its 2012 film distillation. Good to read something I'd heard of but didn't really have an inkling to put in the stack. Well worth it now that I did. Thanks so much for the suggestion/push, and getting to read why it's a favorite of yours.

    Way to go, Rachel!

  2. Hey Michael, so glad you liked it and that the book was still enjoyable even if you knew a lot of what was coming due to the movie. I didn't realize the movie was a PG telling of the story. I agree with you that the book is not.

    My copy has one of those reader discussions in the back and one of the questions asks: is this a tragedy, romance or comedy and I'd definitely put it in the romance category. I think, for me, it goes back to the naive view of religion and how it affects people/societies. Don't get me wrong, I love Pi and this book and all its parts but it is not a story to make me believe in God/s or religion.

    Also, since I'm always nit picking I think I'd better mention this tid bit: "But at the moment he could not see me, and in my wet condition could probably not smell me..." that's even worse than dogs not being able to track in wet conditions for inaccuracy! What a bizarre assumption for someone who's constantly around animals. Has he never, at the least, been next to a wet dog?

    Also, he once refers to a hind leg as a rear leg and that just sounds weird. I don't think I've ever heard anyone refer to hind legs as rear legs.

    Ok, I officially nit picked my favorite book! I am absolved from any guilt over all my other nit picking. :)

    I had such a fun time reading an old favorite so thanks again for doing this one.

  3. And how could I forget! Sea turtles can't retract head or limbs so that bit was totally wrong. :P