Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Cover of "Life of Pi"Cover of Life of Pi

Book info:
Form: e-book, mobi format
Genre: philosophical fiction, adventure, survival, contemporary fiction
Target audience: YA and adults as well

Synopsis (from
The son of an Indian zookeeper, Pi Patel (a shortening from Piscine Molitor, you must read the book to find out why his parents decided to name their baby boy  like that) has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. He also likes religions – the problem is he wants to practice them all. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for their new homes.

The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them “the truth.” After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional–but is it more true than the first one?

What I liked:

As it was published in 2001, there are plenty of excellent reviews of this book around, both very positive and very negative; there’s no chance I could outdo any of them, so I will try to be as brief as possible. I will just tell you about my personal impressions and conclusions. Short and honest.
The book was definitely well-written and engaging, a quick read about the power of survival and adventure at sea with a second bottom. I loved those very acute but funny remarks about animals and their relationship with humans. If you are a more mature reader, however, you can’t miss the fact that the whole novel is a bit philosophical as well so it would be a mistake describing it as just another ‘survival adventure story’. Certain chapters, like those concerning a carnivore island and discourses between temporarily blind Pi and equally blind Richard Parker are something more than just a simple account of how a teenager survived a shipwreck totally on his own with one big beast for company.
This book mentions several very serious and very problematic topics in a very skillful way, avoiding complex reasoning or cheap didacticism. First of all, it promises to make you believe in God and then…tries to persuade you the God (or gods) doesn’t exist. A clever twist. After all, Martel’s insistence that a well-crafted story is just as good, or even better than harsh reality can be construed as the biggest argument against the veracity of the Bible, the Koran and, in fact, all other sacred texts as well. Pi sums up this postmodern worldview by telling the ship investigators, “The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?”  I liked that devilish argument for the argument’s sake still I had my doubts whether or not it was another beautiful but not exactly veracious version of events… 😉 As you see such a reasoning can be used as a double-edged sword.

I also liked how Pi’s opinion about his feline companion changed during the journey. It showed that the real strength we can find turning obstacles and weaknesses into advantages, ‘taming’ them in a way. It certainly isn’t anything easy but it is more often than not the best solution. First Richard Parker was the bane of Pi’s castaway life, a wild beast which should be fed or else (a very unpleasant else as you can imagine). The boy didn’t get rid of it just because he couldn’t – the animal was definitely stronger. Then Pi realized that without the tiger he most probably would have had  thougher time and he wouldn’t have survived. Finally Richard Parker became as close to him as his lost family although feeding it still cost him a lot of efforts. Touching. What a pity the author decided against a proper good-bye between those two.

Finally the cover I find really nice and fitting.
What I didn’t like:
In my humble opinion the book, although started in such an interesting way, lacked an equally strong ending. Its final message seems to revolve around such a statement: there’s no real difference between fantasy and reality, so you might as well choose a version which seems to be more interesting. I don’t agree with such an ambiguous thesis and personally, if I survived over 200 days all alone on Pacific, you would be hardly willing to embellish my version of events so it seems more interesting or spectacular. Taking it to a more metaphorical level – truth is far more important to me than even the most enticing lie because, well, it is the truth. If you don’t believe in the great significance of truth terrible things might happen around you and you won’t even realize.

What’s more, the author suggests that we tend to embrace made-up stories about different gods because they make us comfy, warm, safe and fuzzy, taming the reality and offering an award if we follow the rules and behave. Whether the God from these stories actually exists becomes totally irrelevant. Perhaps he got a point. I wouldn’t like to turn this review into a discourse whether the God (or gods) exists or not, opening a big fat can of worms which really is left tightly closed, preferably at the bottom of the sea; let me just say that the author didn’t manage to persuade me of his version of an ‘atheistic’ gospel because, when I come to think of it, Martel’s message simply disintegrates after serious reflection. Let me also say that, coming from a country where atheism used to be a kind of official religion-cum-outlook for quite a long time, preached, spread and drummed home into the heads of stubborn infidels, I don’t find it particularly exciting. Not really.

Overall his basic argument I found rather trite – I think the author stumbled when he offered an alternative explanation for Pi’s experiences and then challenged the reader to choose: the “better story, the story with animals” or “the story that will confirm what you already know.” Martel compares belief in fiction to belief in God, mixing those two together. Well, I used to read a lot of myths coming from different parts of the world and created by different religions; some of them were really interesting and “pretty” so, according to this author I should now believe in Hermes, Loki, Buddha, Zarathustra, Quetzalcoatl and Osiris to list just few of my favourite deities featuring in these myths. Hmmm…

Final verdict:
You might be surprised that, with the “dislikes” section so full, my final verdict still remains rather positive. An interesting book is not only one we like, treasure and agree with but also a book which makes us stop and think, evaluate and discuss some important truths. I enjoyed reading “Life of Pi” although I might not agree with its message. I would recommend this book to all people who like survival stories, don’t shun philosophy or/and are interested in religious studies.
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12 Responses to Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

  1. Tracy says:

    I really liked this book, and it's very true that we prefer a metaphorical version of a story to a journalistic account of the facts of the same story – both stories were true – but we prefer circles to straight lines – compare this one to Jamrach's Menagerie. And Pi is an Irrational number, after all, one that links the straight line of the diameter of a circle to its circumference…I liked the names, the boy who is named after an object, a French swimming pool (before ending up afloat in the biggest swimming pool in the world), and chooses to shorten it to the name of a famous number – whereas the tiger starts off being called Thirsty and ends up with a fully-human name.

  2. Anachronist says:

    A great observation about the names, Tracy. I missed it but it is very true! I certainly prefer circles to straight lines but only in geometry and landscape ;p.

  3. Blodeuedd says:

    Why do I feel like I have commented on this book before…(ok ok I know I read many bookblogs, but I could have sworn it was on this one)

  4. Anachronist says:

    Believe me or not, dear Blodeuedd, I sometimes visit your blog twice because I am not sure whether I left a comment or not…thanks for your visit anyway!

  5. My daughter thinks the author is suggesting there is something better than the athiest world view but she won't comment herself because she can't bear criticism of the book. 🙂

  6. Anachronist says:

    LOL poor L-A. I am so sorry – I just expressed my honest opinion and you know me, I hardly ever don't criticize. BTW I don't feel the author had anything to suggest but I might be wrong.

  7. I thought the book okay. I was frustrated with a lot of the central themes as well and in all honesty, while the general plot of the story was enjoyable, I was bored throughout. I blame this on the writing, itself. I'm sure such a story could have been told in a more enthralling way and still retained everything about it. It's been a long while since I've picked it up, though, so I can't really remember. His religious decisions really made no sense to me, but I blame this on being religious. So *shrugs shoulders* I don't know. I did enjoy the review though, as always, you always seem to pick out things that I saw but couldn't express.

  8. Anachronist says:

    I did enjoy the review though, as always, you always seem to pick out things that I saw but couldn't express.Strange thing I have similar feelings reading your reviews…;pHis religious decisions really made no sense to me, but I blame this on being religious. I am not surprised – young Pi kind of forgot this or that following his religious education, especially when it comes to Christianity and Islam.

  9. Aurian says:

    Great review Anachronist, but not really my kind of book.

  10. I do enjoy converse of this nature, but I just was on the fence about it. I think it was the strong opinions of people on this book. They actually came off as preachy but it doesn't seem as though the book was. Still, I may stick to Campbell for myth studies of this kind, but I may give this book a try later.

  11. Carole Rae says:

    I love how that happens…there are more negatives than positives but in the end you couldn't help but love the book. Haha. Great review! I just wanted to let you know I'm a new follower. 😀 You're blog is adorable.

  12. Anachronist says:

    Aurian, thanks for a visit. If a book is not your thing it's always better to find it out reading other people's review, right? ;)Melissa I was on the fence about it either but decided to give it a try. I don't regret it. Yes, I've read plenty of 'preachy', negative reviews. They made me curious. ;)Carole Rae, thanks for following! Yes, sometimes I like a book despite the fact that I don't agree with the author – I can be weird that way!

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