This is a perfect example of low – and negative – expectations bringing in the mother load. A year or so ago this book suddenly hit the big time. Everywhere I looked people were reading it. They still are. Curious, I looked it up and was immediately put off. It sounded like one of those boring meditative, well-meaning quasi-religious books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (the very first page of which, I assure you, bored me to tears – that was as far as I got).
Yet a few months ago I found myself buying it at one of the secondhand bookshops I frequent, and I’m still not sure why. It got fat and lazy on my shelf, not making any effort whatsoever to catch my eye. I still expected it to be a lot of philosophical mumbling like Sophie’s World, which I didn’t get far with either back when I was a teenager. But then it came up as the book for June with one of the online book clubs I’m with, and when I eventually got around to it I found it very hard to put down.
Piscine Molitor Patel grew up in Pondicherry, India. His father was a zookeeper and kept a great many animals at the Pondicherry Zoo – until a change in government has his family packing their bags for the Big Move to Winnipeg, Canada. All the animals have to be sold or traded off, and homes have been found for them in zoos in India and America, among other places. In 1977, those bound for the US join them on the Japanese cargo ship, the Tsimtsum, which, somewhere in the Pacific, sinks.
The only survivors are Pi, a urangutan named Orange Juice, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. The lifeboat they share is not just cramped, it’s a case of who’ll be dinner first. Pi not only has to survive the Pacific, he has to survive a hyena and a Bengal tiger.
Written in the first person in a wonderful, humorous, frank style, we come to know Pi so well his story is infinitely believable. The question of whether his story is true or not is raised at the end, when an alternative version is given, but – as some people with a better grasp of such things helpfully pointed out in the book club – if you can believe Pi’s story, you can believe in God. Here is one crux of the story: it is set up, at the beginning by “the author”, who is supposedly re-telling a true story after having talked to Pi Patel at his home in Toronto, that “this is a story that will make you believe in God”. It very well might, but that’s not what I got out of this story.
I didn’t have a problem believing in it. Humans – and animals – are capable of the most extraordinary things in extraordinary times. The laws of nature have plenty of exceptions. With so many vivid details, so many helpful tips if you are ever stranded in the ocean on a lifeboat, and Pi’s youthful (he’s only 16) but wise narration, I not only wanted it to be real, but visited him on his boat completely while reading. I was drawn in so totally, I felt very few, and very brief, doubts at the end. Actually, the only bit I found even the slightest far-fetched was that a Japanese ship would sink in the first place. Granted, the crew were mostly Chinese, but I was very surprised that the ship wasn’t maintained far and beyond regular standards.
I have a great amount of love and respect for animals, and enjoyed learning about their behaviour in zoos vs nature (and Pi makes some good arguments in favour of zoos, though I’ll never stop feeling guilty about them). There were some scenes that were downright horrific to me – I generally feel more anger, pain and sadness when confronted with cruelty to animals than to humans, perhaps because in such situations they are more vulnerable and dependant – or, in the wild, more out-matched and misunderstood. The section on anthropomorphism added to a fascination I’ve had with this for years now, and I loved the scene where Pi is talking to the Catholic priest – he is born Hindu but becomes a Christian and a Muslim, yes, all three – and talking to the Japanese men at the end; both got me giggling. This book is often funny, poignant, revealing and wise … and the last sentence made me cry.
I have no complaints about this book. I was not bored for a second. It was not heavy-handed, lecturing, narrow-minded, self-indulgent or anything else that annoys me in books. I wondered how you could write a book about a boy stuck on a lifeboat in the Pacific for, what was it? 227 days? and not bore your readers to tears – but Martel managed it effortlessly. I finished it yesterday morning over breakfast and already I have an itch to pick it up and read it again. But first I think I’ll invest in the beautiful hardcover illustrated edition that came out a few months ago – I flipped through it before I read it (ah, this reminds me of why I must have bought the book) and loved the paintings in it. My favourite is of the three different holy men looming over the viewer (Pi), after realising for the first time that he has been going to all three different temples of worship.
Without wanting to give it away, I just have to say: when you get to the beginning of Part Two, you’ll be completely won over I think, if you weren’t already. I honestly didn’t see it coming AT ALL – call me blind and stupid but I was floored, in the best possible way. I laughed out loud when I realised. This book is full of surprises (there’s another towards the end which I won’t even hint at) and, corny as this sounds, the prose sweeps you up and carries you towards a far shore just like the Pacific swept up Pi and took him to Mexico. Well worth a Man Booker Prize. And yeah, it did bring me closer to believing in God than anything else ever has, sure, but it brought me treasure greater than that