Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Life of Pi by Yann Martel - reviewed by Susan Price



               It was my younger brother who gave me this book and
told me to read it.  He said it was about the only two survivors of a shipwreck crossing the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat.  One was a boy named Pi and the other, named Richard Parker, was a Bengal tiger.

               I liked that idea, but I still wasn’t inclined to read the book, because I thought that, otherwise, it sounded preachy.  ‘This story will make you believe in God,’ it declares.  I didn’t think so.  If God Himself door-stepped me, He’d have a tough time persuading me to believe in Him.  I’d tell Him, ‘You’re a figment, Mate.”

               But I ran out of books to read, and every print-addict knows how it is.  I’ll read anything when withdrawal bites, even the Daily Mail.  Even Accountancy Monthly.  And there was LIFE OF PI on my bookshelf.  So I read it.  And in future I’ll listen when my brother recommends a book.  (I did.  He told me to read Mo Hayder’s TOKYO, so I did, and, well, wow!)

               But, LIFE OF PI.  A wonderful book.  So much is packed into it, that no short review could do it justice.  Briefly: the main part of the book is narrated by Pi as a middle-aged man, settled in Canada.  He is a lifelong vegetarian, gentle-natured and devout, born and raised a Hindu, but also honouring God through Islam and Christianity.  All these religions, he has come to understand, are, at their heart, the same.  They are all about Love.

               Pi was born in Pondicherry, India, where his family kept a zoo; but when Pi was a teenager, his parents emigrated to Canada.  Many of their animals were sold to American and Canadian zoos, and transported on the same cargo ship that carried Pi’s family.

               The ship sank.  Pi found himself adrift in a small life-boat with: a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, a female orang-utan, and Richard Parker, a tiger named after the hunter who captured him as a cub.  The tiger, sedated for the journey, at first lay sleepily under the tarpaulin which partly covered the boat.  It was the crazed hyena which was to be feared, as it first attacked the wounded zebra, eating it alive; and then the orang, killing her.  The hyena was terrifying, but when the tiger woke, it was outclassed.  Richard Parker killed and ate the hyena.

               How did Pi outwit the tiger?  He was lucky, he admits, in that the tiger was used to captivity, and was an omega, a subordinate animal.  Pi used everything he’d learned about animal behaviour: marking his part of the boat as his territory by using his own urine and vomit, and intimidating  the tiger by staring and blowing blasts on a whistle.  To help keep the tiger docile, he fed it as well he could on fish and turtles, and provided fresh water from the life-boats de-salination kits.  Still, he could never let down his guard.  Richard Parker might have been a zoo-animal, but he was not tame.   Pi knew that one swipe from the tiger’s paw could kill him.

               All this is completely gripping – and more than merely exciting.  It’s beautiful, and awe-inspiring.  The descriptions evoke the tininess of the boat and the vast depth of water beneath it; the vast emptiness of sea and sky around it.  Pi looks down through depths and depths of water, at ‘streets’ and ‘towns’ of fish.  He describes the terror of a storm, where the waves rise like mountains above the tiny craft, and lightening illuminates the depths below him.  Frankly, it was so evocative, it gave this land-lubber  the willies.

               We feel the immense power and physical bulk of the animals too – the frenzy of the hyena, barely contained in the tiny craft. The appalling strength and grace of the tiger, as it leaps on top of the tarpaulin to attack Pi – which it does, when he goads it, while training it to respect his territory.  (I won’t spoil the story by telling you how he survives these attacks.)  Even when Richard Parker lies in the boat’s prow, at ease, basking in the sun, we are aware of great strength and ferocity at ease.  Pi can survive only so long as he convinces Richard Parker that, on board their tiny floating zoo, Pi is the alpha male.

               But Richard Parker was only doing what tigers do; just as the hyena was only being a hyena.  Even when one animal is eating another alive, it isn’t evil.  It is only doing what its – God-given? – nature compels it to do.  In fact, it’s impossible to imagine a tiger or hyena thinking: although I am starving, I will not eat this wounded fellow creature because it would be morally wrong.

               The boat eventually drifts to shore in Mexico.  By that time, both Pi and Richard Parker are weak and exhausted, but Richard Parker leaves the boat immediately, and vanishes into the Mexican jungle.  Pi is rather upset that the tiger doesn’t give him so much as a glance.  Much as he feared it, he also valued its companionship, and without the spur of its terrifying presence, he thinks he might have given up in despair.

               Pi is found, and taken to a hospital, where he recovers.  At this point his narration ends.  The writer to whom he’s been telling his story researches it, and discovers that, while Pi was in hospital, he was visited by executives from the Japanese shipping company who owned the sunken ship.  The writer obtains a transcript of their conversation with Pi from the company records.

In it, the executives tell Pi that they don’t believe his story.  They don’t believe he could have survived so long with a tiger as a shipmate, and no tiger has been sighted in Mexico.  How could a tiger vanish without trace?

               Pi asks why they expect to find a tiger in a jungle: and he quotes stories of wild animals which have survived, unseen, in modern cities for decades.  Still the executives don’t believe him, and eventually Pi tells another version of his story – which I won’t relate here, because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t yet read it.  Suffice to say that the second story is broadly recognisable as an account of the same events, but is even more brutal and horrifying than Pi’s original tale; and, sadly, more believable.  It makes the reader reconsider the whole book; and drastically reconsider the character of the sweet, mild, gentle vegetarian Pi who worships Love.  And, come to that, it makes us reconsider our own characters.

               Pi asks his interviewers which story they preferred: the one with the tiger or the one without?  They both prefer the one with the tiger – even though they don’t believe it.  Probably every reader prefers the story of Pi and Richard Parker to the alternative, even though the alternative is much closer to ‘real life’ as we know it to be.  Tigers and hyenas are, by nature, brutal – but they don’t, as men do, make the choice to be.

               But did this story make me believe in God?  No; not even close.
          In fact, having read the book, I think its declaration, 'This book will make you believe in God,' is ironic. Its underlying message, as I understand it, is exactly what I have believed about religion for decades: that religions are the stories we tell each other and ourselves to make the harshness of reality bearable.  We prefer the stories, we call them ‘true’, even when we know they’re not, because the truth is as ugly and brutal as a hyena tearing and eating a living zebra.

          Pi, it seems, somewhere in his mind, knows the truth about what happened on the boat: he knows whether or not there was truly a tiger and a hyena – but even while he knows it, he refuses to know it.  And the Japanese executives, even while declaring his first story to be unbelievable, and his second story all too possible and believable, also instantly declare that they prefer the unbelievable story.

          Story-telling, the book seems to say – fictions about ourselves, fictions about Gods – are all that gives us hope, all that makes life bearable.  If we make ourselves blind and deaf to everything except our stories, we can even convince ourselves that Love is at the centre of existence. 

          But if we stop telling stories and look at reality – well, perhaps LIFE OF PI holds a metaphor for that.  (We can’t even look at reality without telling stories.)  A tiny, frail craft, precariously afloat on a vastly deep, vastly wide and stormy ocean, with predators even within the craft itself, and no respite from the vigilance against them.

          LIFE OF PI is a superb book – lively, entertaining, witty, intelligent and beautifully written.  I’ve read it twice now, and I imagine I shall read it many more times.  But I find it puzzling that so many people think it ‘uplifting’.  Though it is often playful, funny, and poetic, this is the pretty spray and foam on the ocean’s surface.  Beneath there are dark, cold depths.

          Perhaps a believer who shares one of Pi’s faiths – Hinduism, Islam or Christianity – might end the novel with a different view.  But, as an atheist, though I greatly admire the book, I find its message beautifully bleak, and I’m as unbelieving as ever.

Life of Pi at Amazon UK
                     Amazon US
                     Amazon Ca