Thursday, January 31, 2013

Book Review: Life of Pi *spoilers*

Yann Martel's novel Life of Pihas now been made into a feature film, leading to a surge in interest in the tiger on a boat story. When it was recently on special offer for the Kindleat just 20p (and it still is), I thought I'd read along and see what all the fuss was about. My conclusion? It's a bit of a strange novel, with bits of stories that could almost sit separately, and a traumatic twist at the very end. More about that later.

The book's main character is a little lad named Piscine (who seizes the opportunity to change it from 'pissing' to 'Pi' when he changes school), whose dad owns a zoo in Pondicherry, India. The early part of the story is fascinating, as the experience of growing up in a zoo is described in vivid detail; the envy of many a reader is incited - just imagine waking up and walking to school past the elephants and the lions and everything else! The arguments for zoos are presented very strongly, as a place of safety and security for animals who have adapted to their territory and are comfortable in their space.

Alongside zoos, there is plenty of chat about religion as well: 'I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.' He describes his favourite school teacher, Mr Kumar, who is an avowed atheist, who asserts that 'Religion is darkness.' to which Pi replies in his thoughts, 'Darkness is the last thing that religion is. Religion is light.' Yet even this prompts Pi to believe that 'atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them - and then they leap.'

Still on religion, Pi says: 'We are all born like Catholics, aren't we - in limbo, without religion, until some figure introduces us to God? After that meeting the matter ends for most of us. If there is a change, it is usually for the lesser rather than the greater; many people seem to lose God along life's way. That was not my case.

The development is that Pi - a Hindu - also becomes a Christian and a Muslim, all at the same time (allegedly, of course - it's the premise of the book). It's his contention that all religions are just basically the same: 'Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.'

He meets a priest, who tells him the story of Jesus being crucified, and he reflects: 'What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology... What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?' Nevertheless... 'I couldn't get Him out of my head. Still can't. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.' And so he returns to the priest, who declares: 'You already are [a Christian], Piscine - in your heart. Whoever meets Christ in good faith is a Christian.'

To his Christianity is quickly added Islam, a year later. Martel, through Pi, presents a religious pick n mix, a smorgasbord of spiritualities where it appears it's buy one, get two free. Why just be a Hindu when you can also be Christian and Muslim. An interesting situation, which leads to a comical episode where Pi and his family happen to bump into the pandit, the priest and the imam all at the same time. 'That was my introduction to interfaith dialogue,' says Pi. Hilarious, but ultimately unsatisfying. The truth claims of each are exclusive, it's just not possible to be all at the same time.

Part Two of the book moves from his ultra-religious upbringing to the amazing journey. The family zoo is moving from India to Canada, and they're travelling on a cargo boat when suddenly, the ship is in trouble, and Pi lands in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger. Through the waters of the ocean, Pi recounts his travels as the zebra and orangutan are quickly disposed of, the tiger eats the hyena, and Pi is left with the tiger - to train, or be killed.

The survival story is like something from Bear Grylls, with lots of reflections on fear, on doing what is necessary, on gaining the upper hand against a wild tiger, changing dietary habits and fishing while avoiding sharks and so on. Through the carnivorous island, the hunger and thirst, the perils of storms, the disappointments of losing equipment and having barely enough to survive, eventually Pi and Richard Parker (the tiger) land on solid ground in Mexico.

That brings us to the third part of the book. It's perhaps the funniest of the whole book. It's a series of interviews (which had been recorded and transcribed) conducted by officers from the Japanese Transport department, investigating the sinking of the cargo ship. Most of it is in English, but we're also treated to the translated comments which they share in Japanese. Very funny stuff! They fail to believe the story of the tiger and so on, and eventually pressure Pi into telling another version, a story without animals. Now in the Kindle, you don't have page numbers, but you do have percentage of the book you've already read, and we were in the high 90s. What would be the twist? And it's simply this - there were no animals. The half of the book has been an invention, a fabricated story to remove himself from the horror of the true events of the lifeboat, in which a member of the crew, the cook, his mother and Pi set off on the lifeboat, but only Pi survives the butchery and drive to survive. Gruesome, so it's little wonder the Japanese report goes with the tiger story.

The author's note at the beginning (which was almost by-passed by the Kindle going straight to the start of chapter one) declares that this is a book to make the reader believe in God. I'm not sure he does that - unless it's in his all-encompassing way of insisting that it doesn't matter what you believe, you're in. Perhaps though, he means the miracle that Pi survived so long in the boat, but again, I'm not convinced. It's a memorable story that will long stick in my mind, but it's not a book to bring belief.

I'm not sure how they've transferred it to the big screen. I'm not sure how faithful to the book it would be. It might just be worth seeing or reading for some escapism, but, as the 39 Articles of Religion says of the apocrypha (paraphrasing) - interesting to read, but don't use them for doctrine.

Life of Pi(Kindle)

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