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Life of Pi (Review)

wonderfully-written-4

Life of Pi
Yann Martel, 2001
348 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
May 2007

What do you do with a 450-pound Bengal tiger?

Sounds like the old 800-pound gorilla joke, and the answer is pretty much the same—give it whatever it wants, especially if the two of you are sharing a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Young Piscene Patel is the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India...

When "Pi" turns 16, his father decides to move family and zoo to Canada, but four days out to sea the boat inexplicably sinks. The only survivors are Pi, a wounded zebra, a hyena, and the Bengal tiger—all of whom find themselves together in a lifeboat.

Eventually, Pi realizes his own survival depends on keeping the tiger alive. Should it die, he thinks, “I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.” From that point on, Pi makes the care and training of the tiger his sole preoccupation. Along the way, we get fascinating explanations of zoos, animal behavior, distilling salt water, fishing, and gutting turtles.

Lead-footed realists have faulted the plot's improbability, but they miss the point. Yann Martel is a superb storyteller, and he has fashioned a fable: a metaphysical exploration into our relationship with the cosmos and the divine.

Pi is a quester, and early on in some delightfully whimsical passages, he seeks to meld several religious traditions into one. His name suggests a circle's unity and the numerical pi's infinity. Later, adrift in his lifeboat, Pi contemplates the vastness of the night sky and tells us he feels like the sage who fell out of the Hindu god Vishnu’s mouth and “so beheld the entire universe, everything that is there.”

No matter what level you read this story on, Life of Pi is a beautifully written, thrilling page-turner. At the end, Pi proffers a second version of his tale, a story of “dry, yeastless factuality.” Why not choose “the better story,” Pi asks?  And so, we are free to believe in the version we wish.

See our Readers' Guide for Life of Pi.

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