Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Life of Pi / Yann Martel
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Thursday, 01 September 2005
This is a story that is supposed, as one of the characters claims, to make you believe in God. I seriously doubt the book will have such a profound effect on most readers, and yet it is a powerful and enjoyable read.

The story of Piscine Molitor (“Pi”) Patel, an Indian teenager, son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, is told by Martel as seen by the eyes of an older, wiser Patel, living in Toronto, Canada. The story begins with Pi's childhood in the zoo, and his encounters with religion -- Pi of the 1970s, as well as the later-day Mr. Patel, is a practicing Hindu, Muslim and Christian, refusing to limit his faith to just one choice, despite what clerics tell him.

The story shifts into gear when in 1977, the Patel family, along with a large portion of their menagerie, emigrated from India to Canada onboard a Japanese merchant ship, the Tsimtsum. They never made it: following a misterious explosion in its bowels, the Tsimtsum sank in the midst of the Pacific.

Young Pi finds himself as a sole survivor on board an orange lifeboat. He sees a friend in the water -- Richard Parker -- and struggles to help the friend on board. In the midst of all the chaos, Pi realizes too late that letting Parker on board was, in fact, a potentially grave mistake. Richard Parker, you see, was a large Bengal tiger, so named because of a clerical error.

Also on the boat, Pi realizes, are a wounded zebra and a spotted hyena, the former serving as a treat for the latter; and they are shortly joined by a female orangutan floating on an island of bananas.

So, what does a teenage boy do on a lifeboat with a zebra, a spotted hyena, an orangutan, one rat and several flies, plus one Bengal tiger, sized one-third of the boat when measured from tail to whiskers? Only the boy and the feline terror survived for more than a short while. The frame story tells us that the boy survived the ordeal, which leaves us with the question: how do you deal with a tiger sharing your lifeboat -- for two hundred and twenty seven days, no less?

You can't push him overboard. The beast weights no less than 450 pounds, and even if you will succeed, tigers are accomplished swimmers. Richard Parker will probably be less friendly after such a forced swim. You can't kill him, not even with the knives available on the boat. Perhaps you could choke him with a rope, but that would be a risky business, with failure having tragic consequences. And, sadly enough, you cannot simply outlive him. The tiger will likely survive longer than you will without fresh water, and when he runs out of food, well, there's always you.

Which leaves Pi with only one option: to tame the tiger. To provide it with food and fresh water, obtained by fishing and gathering rain water, and make sure he understands the limits of his teritory.

The adventures of Pi are enjoyable, fascinating, often spellbinding. While not even remotely a mere adventure book, the plot easily holds the reader's interest. But it is much more than that. In some ways, the story is reminiscent of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, a story of a personal struggle and fierce determination accompanied by large fish, a larger ocean, and insights about the human condition. Was there really a tiger? Or is Richard Parker merely Pi's faith? Almost drowned when the ship sank, but pulled onboard; always a danger that has to be tamed, but without which, the protagonist, by his own admission, would never have survived; an important part of your being on the lifeboat, but whose territory must be clearly defined and the border vigorously defended; and often viewed as it is viewed due to clerical errors, the mistakes and mislabelings of organized religion.

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