Sunday, April 28, 2024

Life of Pi


Named after a Parisian swimming pool, Piscine Molitor Patel, known to his family and friends by the nickname “Pi”, has had a colorful childhood in Pondicherry, spending much of his time tending to the animals of his father’s zoo as well as flirting with three different religions at the same time as some sort of spiritual experimentation. His metaphysical issues are immediately replaced with existential ones as the family decides to sell the zoo and the animals so they can all start anew as immigrants in Canada. As the day comes, he, his parents, and his older brother Ravi all board the Japanese ship Tsimtsum along with some animals that are going to various zoos in North America with them. The ship sinks amidst a freak storm somewhere in the Pacific, leaving Pi on a lifeboat alone with a wounded zebra, a hungry hyena, a dazed orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The first third of the novel is spent getting to know Pi and his early brush with religion. It is an enjoyable read that is supposed to be a simple story of a young man’s journey to spiritual self discovery but narrated in such a fun way that makes you want to know more about him. The text is also rife with psychological musings, most of them of the metaphysical kind that juxtaposes religion and spirituality in a modern context and how the power of faith can be a motivation for miraculous feats that many wouldn’t achieve otherwise. Perhaps that’s where the novel gets its whimsical appeal, even if you are agnostic or an atheist.

If you are just curious as to what the twist is, then you simply have to read the last twenty pages or so from 406 onwards. That presents a clear summary of the symbolisms involved where it is revealed that the animals might not have been animals at all, but rather a PG-13 version of what would otherwise have been a narrative too depressing to read, because life is cruel enough as it is. And so we cope. It is the power of this symbolism that I remember the most the first time I read this novel two decades ago. A mark of a good storyteller is indulging the imagination with creative alternate POVs to soften the blow.

In a way, Life of Pi is just another argument that life is how you make it. The circumstances you find yourself in change depending on your perspective and how you react to it. Even the thinnest sliver of a silver lining can alter your approach to almost everything and in the end, it will always be your choice how you go forward. The novel is as feel-good as it can be which some people might frown upon and even dismiss as self-help, but with such a storyline replete with imagination, the premise turns out to be just as good as the presentation.

Another thing I admire is the abundance of zoology tidbits scattered here and there. It’s hard to tell if Martel was just improvising but the information was laid out in such an authoritative manner that begs amusement. In any case it doesn’t really matter because it seems like the main motivation for such is to frame the human being vis-a-vis the animal and try to better understand life as a game of instinct and survival. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. After all, aren’t we all technically just animals too, living in a more sophisticated zoo with cages that are of the societal norm type instead of the usual stainless steel?

Anyway, Martel already got his flowers when the novel won him the Man Booker Prize in 2002. Now there is also an Oscar-nominated film adaptation which won Ang Lee his first Academy Award for directing. It seems as though Martel hasn’t really had a follow-up hit after this, but then again how many best-sellers do you really need to have to set you up for life? He already left a good enough literary legacy with Life of Pi, and it will just continue to allure readers of all ages for decades to come.

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