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Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

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I just blazed through Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  The book's message speaks to the essence of love and how life can confuse its truth. 

The story starts with a family that runs a zoo and then on the way from India to Canada their ship sinks. Pi is the only family member who survives.  The story follows Pi's journey on a lifeboat joined by a few wild animals.  Yann Martel's ability to communicate the tense survival scenario on this lifeboat is amazing.

The beginning describes, in detail, what it means to run a zoo and the way humans handle zoos as visitors.  The author describes, quite effectively, that those who don't like it because the animals aren't "happy" are off-base.   The fact is the animals, like the humans, adapt to the safety and routine of a habitat. 

As an aside, I just don't dig zoos.  For me, I just don't like that I'm looking at animals that have been, or are, stripped of their natural instinct. (After seeing a lion in Africa in the wild, it's a little unusual to see them in a zoo)

But to say this is an animal, zoo, family, survival, etc. book just sells it short.  He rakes religion.  Referring to agnostics he said:

To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means to transportation.

There is even a point where he, quite sensibly describes just how debilitating it is to be near dying of thirst.  He points out:

Look:  Christ on the Cross died of suffocation, but His only complaint was of thirst.

And earlier in the book he makes an absolutely hilarious reference to Christianity's obssession with capitalization.  Despite more than three really different points and character plots already mentioned, Mr. Martel keeps it together magnificently.

A few other things struck me:

Narrowing our horizon of love

What I found absolutely fascinating about the book was how he described the dynamic of living life safely and its routine being both desirable and the very thing that limits our ability to feel the limitlessness of love. A beautiful quote in the book was:  "First wonder goes deepest, wonder after that fits in the impression made by the first."  If that doesn't eloquently and succinctly express why life is suffering, I don't know what does.

Projecting our emotional needs

A wonderful part of the book is when he talks about how we as humans project personalities on to creatures just because of the way they might look and then developing a strange completion by doing so.  The fact is, an animal is doing what it needs to do to survive. I happen to think that an animal does feel emotions, candidly, I just don't know what they are.  And to guess based on the way they are acting, I only know that, I'm doing it out of my own frame of reference, not theirs.

Another home-run quote in the book:  "The obsession of putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologists."  Honestly, where does he come up with this A-list material?

Proof of God

One of the huge points of the book is the story is Pi's story is meant to show proof that God exists.  When I read the book, as a story about animals and humans trying to kill each other I felt one way.  When it shifted to have the same scene with humans, it felt different; I'm not sure I know why.

Part of what I felt was that animals survive and kill by instinct and that humans don't.  Even if faced with starving to death, it's just not in our instinct.  We may eat someone who dies, but killing to eat is, I don't know, different.  The beautiful thing is Pi is vegetarian, so it takes on a whole different slant.

It doesn't mean, to me, that lions and other carnivores aren't God's creatures.  What it means is that we all do what we are meant to do.  And love is at its essence.  And a carnivore killing to survive is natural and in fact critical.  A human killing a human (or I suppose any other sentient being) is a choice.

No matter what I write here (even if I told you the whole plot) I know that the journey of the story is far more rewarding than the results of having read it.  Mr. Martel is definitely a different chap; this story, however, I view it as a classic.

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  • Vern Halen

    Yep, this was a great book. At one time I had hear that M. Night Sham (can’t spell it) was going to direct a film version – it would be great if it ever came true.

  • Vern Halen,

    Thank you for your note. I heard the same thing. I started to consider it and I suppose it would take some pretty kickin’ computer graphics/special effects to make it come to life.

    But there’s a big part of me that doesn’t believe anyone can really re-create the tension I felt when I read it. (A great example were the parts leading up to the orangatun dying….)

    It’s unlike any novel I’ve read before.

    Thanks again,


  • Raul Duran

    It’s great to react so much alike to the same parts and moments in the book.

    I enjoyed your review and agree with your opinion about a movie adaptation, there is no way it can achieve what the book did.

    Keep the good work.

  • Thank you Raul. I guess we’ll have to see.

    As for reacting alike during different parts of the book I admit that Life of Pi is one of those books that when I see someone else reading it now, I just smile because I remember how great a ride it was.

    Definitely a book that as I read each page I lamented that it was one page closer to finishing.

  • I heard that M Night is no longer doing the film version.

    I read this book in one overnight sitting, something I hadn’t done before or since. It’s a real treat and I’m happy to see more people discovering it.

  • I literally could not put it down. Something just occurred to me, if you could choose any one director (living) and any one star (living, male or female) to be in the movie who would you choose?

    Since I just thought it up, I’ll answer off of the top of my head:

    Director: Brad Bird (he did Iron Giant and now is at Pixar)

    Actor: Brad Pitt (yes, I know he is as far from being Indian as one can get, but I feel like he’s one of the few that could pull it off. And yes, I’m lame, I don’t know that many Indian actors, maybe other than the dude who played Kumar in the White Castle film…at least I’m honest. I’m sure there’s a super talented Bollywood star far more qualified to play the role)

    Feel free to add other pieces of the puzzle, maybe who should do the soundtrack…. (Yo La Tengo or maybe Cornershop comes to mind)

    Thought it might be fun. Bottom line, I don’t really HOPE they do it right if they did a film, it would be nice, however if it were more like Jurassic Park (in terms of being close to the book experience) than, I don’t know, like da Vinci Code was apparently.

    Thanks everyone for your comments. It’s cool to encounter others who enjoyed it so much.