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Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a fantasy adventure story, but with an underlying theme that I never expected. Let me begin with a brief synopsis. This is the story of Piscine Patel, nicknamed Pi, and his misadventures. He is a young teenage Indian boy, son of a zoo owner. Importantly, he is a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. His experiences growing up with animals, his family, and his faiths are the main topic of the first part.

The second part of the book is about his misadventures at sea. His family decides to immigrate to Canada, bringing most of their zoo animals with them to sell in North America. They board a cargo ship, but the ship sinks, and Pi spends a total of 227 days floating in the Pacific Ocean, with a hyena, zebra, orangutan, and a Bengal tiger for company. The first three animals die one by one, but the tiger and Pi survives until they float and reach the Mexican shores. This is the longest and in my opinion, most gruesome part of the book.

The final part of the book is an interview between Pi and a couple of Japanese maritime officials. Pi narrates his story of his ordeal at sea with the animals. However, the Japanese officials find his story incredulous and unbelievable, so Pi provides another story, without the animals. The Japanese officials find parallels between the two stories, and later on, Pi asks the officials which story they prefer, to which they respond that they prefer the animal story. Pi ends the conversation with and so it goes with God.

I could analyze this novel in so many different ways. No one can deny that this is an adventure novel. I am impressed with the wealth of information this novel has with respect to marine biology and survival. The author definitely did a great deal of research for this. Some of the descriptions on survival tactics were rather disturbing, to the point that one can almost think of this as a horror novel.

However, I realized that it is only disturbing because most of us humans have the creature comforts that our day to day lives provide. We usually never find ourselves thrown into such an extreme scenario that we lose our humanness and revert to animalistic measures.

Something that I didn’t expect as I began to read this book was the fact that this is also a theological novel. I didn’t expect religion to be an underlying theme to this. The thing is, the novel makes it sound like religious believers, agnostics, and atheists can fall into three different bins, depending on which story one believes in.

In the very short final part of the book, Pi provides two explanations for his ordeal. Neither of these explanations can be proven. If one believes the one with the animals, then one presumably is a religious believer, as it is the better story.

On the other hand, if one believes the story without the animals, then one is an atheist, as this is a story that confirms what we already know. We already know that surviving 227 days in the open sea with a Bengal tiger is a very unusual occurrence, in addition to carnivorous islands and meerkats in the middle of the ocean. And if one cannot choose, then one is an agnostic.

The thing that disturbs me is that it is not clear which side the author advocates. Is he advocating for belief in religion? Or is he advocating for empiricism and atheism? As an atheist, I obviously have my own biases I am bringing to the table, but as a reader, I can argue one way or another.

The book opens with an episode that said that the following story will make one believe in God. Did it? It didn’t work for me. I understand that the story with the animals sounds better, less gruesome, and prettier. But the probability of it being true is also low. As someone who deals with inferential statistics quite often, I think that the probability of the animal story being true is quite low, and I am more then willing to chalk it up as Pi’s hallucination during his ordeal.

At the same time, it is correct that neither version of the story can be proven. Regardless of which story one picks, one still has to take the word of Pi. There is still a measure of faith that is involved. So, shall I pick the version of the story where there are no animals, and instead of animals, there is the sailor, the cook, and Pi’s mother, who gets killed one by one, as each try to survive in the ocean? As gruesome and inhumane that might be, I will still pick that, given that there are more supporting evidence pointing to that being true.

So what am I saying here? Sometimes, it is hard to find absolute truth. I agree that the concept of absolute truth is desirable, but sometimes, it is hard to discern what exactly constitutes absolute truth. Thus, I take the weaker view of relative truth. We all have different beliefs, and for some of us, religion is truth. For some of us, the existence of God is indeed truth. But that obviously is not shared by everyone. And sometimes, it is hard to convince everyone that what you think is definitely true, and therefore should also be believed by others.

If I have to pick one thing that I like about this book, it would be the fact that it allowed me to reflect on my lack of religious beliefs. As much as I think what I believe is true, I also agree that it is a belief that is testable and can be debunked. If I have evidence supporting the opposite belief, I definitely have an open mind and would definitely consider it. Overall, belief is a matter of probabilities, in my opinion. One weighs all the evidence for and against a belief, and measures the probabilities of these pieces of evidence.

In Martel’s view, I might seem like someone who doesn’t want to choose between the two stories, but I am not. I am choosing one story over another, but nothing prevents me from changing my choice if I encounter another evidence that would support the other story.

I give this 4 out of 5 stars.

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About Jeruen Dery

  • I read this book in one sitting, it was that interesting to me. Apparently, it is supposed to be made into a movie.

    • Dikshanta

      we can look in youtube . this is a loving story

  • Bhai

    I love this book

  • DA

    I believe that both scenarios are plausable. Once Pi told the 2nd story, I went “ohh” that makes sense. I do like the animal story better and believe that a person could survive with the animals on board in just that way – they are just as afraid of us as we are of them.

  • Hi DA – Yes, both scenarios are indeed plausible. The neat thing about the novel is that there is no way to decide. So it is up to the reader which version on prefers, whether it’s the “Disney” version or the other one.

  • ayush goyal

    this bookj is so good toread

  • daniel churchill

    this book is off the chain gurrrlllllll!

  • yaya

    heyyyy gurrl!

  • yaya

    wow daniel…..

  • poopy joe

    This sucks

    • Sexy lady’s

      I fucked after this book

  • visitor

    I want to congratulate you on a respectful, thoughtful book review. “Life of Pi” was recommended to me by my 6th grade daughter about 5 years ago, and I found it to be one of the best books I have ever read,and as you found, very thought-provoking. In fact this is the first time I have ever commented on anything online.

    Unlike you, I believe in God (I am a Roman Catholic Christian), but I chose the same story as you as the “true” one, so I’m not sure the “prettier” one is actually the one meant for religious believers to choose. The story with the people for me illustrates the human tendency to fail to live up to what is best in our natures — to be “fully human” as God intended us to be. The other story is only “prettier” because the animals are acting out their true natures or instincts, not making moral judgements or failing to act in moral ways.

    Actually, as I recall (I don’t have the book here) atheists and those who believe in God were considered by Pi to both have taken a leap of faith not taken by agnostics. My remembrance is that Pi’s atheist friend who visited the zoo was impressed by the beauty of the animals and what nature or evolution had brought about, so possibly the animal story is the one they are supposed to choose under your analysis.

    My take on the book was that Pi is Richard Parker (the tiger), and he chose to do what was necessary for survival, much in self-defense. His mother (orangutan) was not willing to kill to survive. The cook (hyena) was, and was capable of cannibalism. The tiger is a symbol for the darkness that lurks in all of us (original sin?). Pi is uneasy with his choices which fall short of the ideals of any of his religious beliefs, hence the uneasy truce with the “tiger” on the boat, and why Richard Parker runs off into the jungle upon arrival back in civilization — which has supports to aid moral decision making (laws, social expectations, institutions, etc.). In my opinion, that is why he weeps after he says “…and so it goes with God.” God wants us to live up to the human nature he created for us, but that we often turn away from, though Pi’s situation is truly extreme. That is why in the Christian tradition, we needed a savior. Perhaps God would have preferred the animal story?

  • myfeedbackaustralia

    “Life of Pi” is by far, the worst book I have ever read in my life, and reminds me to never read a book based on hype alone. I regard myself as well read – books I have enjoyed (& sometimes persevered with) include sci fi (Dune trilogy, PK Dick, Neuromancer), fantasy (Tolkein, Dracula, Ryder Haggard, Anne Rice), classics (Austen, Bronte, Dumas, Tolstoy, Du Maurier, Margaret Mitchell, Agatha Christie, Orwell, Plath, Harper Lee, Scott Fitzgerald, Radcliffe, Gallico) ancient classics (Homer), modern (Attwood, Allende, Larsson, Anne Rice, Rushdie), international (Tale of Genji, Rubiyyat of Omar Khayam, Pilgrims Progress, Canterbury Tales), childrens’ (Dahl, Wizard of Oz), allegorical (Lion Witch & Wardrobe, The Shack, Animal Farm) and popular (Twilight, Hunger Games, DaVinci Code, Clive Cussler, Perfume, Larsson). In comparison “Life of Pi” was a complete & total waste of time. The first 100 pages were readable (no more or less than any of the books I have read before) – I endured until the beheading of Orange Juice, when I finally put it down & asked myself – “why am I subjecting myself to this awful crap??” To read pages & pages in gory & graphic detail about how the zebra gets, over two days, pieces of its body ripped of it & slowly eaten alive made me physically sick. It was a dreadful read on the way to work & completely ruined my day. How people can say this is a wonderful book beats me!! And why would you subject children to this book or movie (unless you were ignorant of the violence & got sucked in by the hype)?? On the way home, I debated throwing the book away (something I have never done in my life before). I considered throwing it in the nearby river but didn’t want to litter. It was a huge sense of relief to throw it in the bin!! If violence, gore & animal suffering to the extreme is your thing – read this book. Or if you are just a mindless follower & can be told to think a “wonderful” book is one that includes pages of graphic animal suffering. If you are sensitive to the suffering of others & love animals – stay away. If you are not sure – don’t waste your time & money on this one – there are many better books to read.

  • Tacitaquipper

    Life of pi features two parallel stories about the events on a lifeboat in the pacific after the sinking of a cargo ship.

    One of these stories is infinitesimally more fantastical than the other. This story, the first version that Pi tells, is the embellished version, the more colorful and amazing one which has tigers and hyenas and orangutans to satisfy your imagination. It has carnivorous islands and sea turtles and meerkats yet all is delivered in a factual and clinical tone (probably coz pi is looking back on his suffering as a reflection).

    The other story is more brutal. This story is only presented to us when the two Japanese interviewers decide they don’t like the first story, that they want to hear something that doesnt contradict their already set in place beliefs. This has no animals in it, but cannibals and amputations and murder. The two Japanese interviewers note that each animal corresponds to a person in the humans only story… But the only human (pi) in the animal story does not have a match up, because the tiger is a projection of himself…

    Personally I believe Martel is really asking us, since it makes no difference which story we prefer, to stop being agnostic and have faith in something unproven. The choice is what matters, not which story you choose. the animal story reflects religions and parables, metaphors and euphemisms and things that do not necessarily come from your own life. The humans story reflects believing in what you can predict from your own circumstances and your own life…

    I have read this book now once a year since it came out ( I was then six) and my perception of the different depths in this book have changed over the course of my life. I at first saw only the fictious story, then the psychology, and now I see the challenge of faith… I will continue to re read it and see what later life revelations can be bestowed upon me.

  • Ankitha

    nice review

  • chiciebee

    I found your proposal of the meaning of the reader’s choice of story to be an interesting and thought-provoking idea. I can’t say I fully agree with it, as I don’t really fit in.

    I am an atheist, and I choose the animal story. I fully agree with the author’s implication (as he intended); it IS the better story. It is told over the greater portion of the book and strikes a chord with the animal-lover and adventure-novel fan in me. The second is told in a chapter, but admittedly with the same beguiling charm as the first two parts; it effectively had me questioning the validity of nearly everything I read before.

    But there is no choice, for me. Did I just get through a thrilling tale of adventure and survival to choose the mundane ending? No! And whatever implications on my religious persuasion can be sent to that fiery underworld of legend.

    May I assert that, in reality, this is a work of fiction? That, truthfully, NEITHER of these stories ever took place? Debating which of these to choose is practically irrelevant, since neither is “true”. And determining which of the two is more likely based on statistical probability is downright daft. (How likely is it that Cinderella actually had a fairy godmother who gave her glass slippers, for crying out loud?) The only reason to entertain these discussions is to analyze yourself.

    What does my choice say about me? To put in in Martel’s terms, with each decision I have chosen what I believe to be the better story. I have already explained the choice of the animal story. For my choice in faith? To believe in God when I so deeply believe that God is a figment of imagination to explain the mysteries of life? That would feel empty to me. I would feel as if the wool had been pulled over my eyes. I could never be content like that. I choose instead to believe in the general truths I perceive every day about human nature, and about science. Mr. Kumar and I would have a lot in common.

    And may I assert that this novel has strengthened a notion I’ve held for a long time about peoples’ chosen religious persuasions. I can divide all individuals into two categories: those who hold views about religion, either that they believe or do not believe, and are secure enough in their belief that they do not feel the need to shove it in others’ faces, and those who are precisely the opposite, and are constantly stirring up dust and resentment in their quest to convert people to their points of view. I believe that Pi Patel, the author, and I would fall neatly into the first category. We have our beliefs, we present our beliefs, but we don’t demand that others conform to them. We coexist peacefully and learn from one another. I think this is truly beautiful.

    This was a powerful work of fiction; I’ve never read a book with such an entrancing writing style. Even now I am amazed at the way Martel, as he said, twisted reality to bring out its essence. I gobbled it up like candy. This is not a novel I will forget in a hurry.

  • Ipreferanimals

    Myfeedbackaustralia, how can you say this is crap? You may not ‘get’ it or even care which says more about the reader, than the book. Animals die and kill, eat and suffer in nature to survive. Naivety or ignorance shuns that fact ( that is not the same thing as being affected by animals in pain through torture) and indeed this book illustrates something far higher than that.

    I read this book years ago and it was not hyped by anyone. A friend sent me a copy having said she could not believe how no one had told her about this book. It is wonderful precisely because of its detail, imagination, narrative, colour and, first and foremost because of its soul. If you haven’t read it, then I urge you to do so – unless you don’t like to believe that animals have to kill to survive and that somehow Man’s behaviour is somehow less cruel than the latter to behold on the page, or in life.

  • Religion centred? Yes

    I reckon Martel is having a fair dig at religion of all types in an indirect manner. You can choose the animals, without doubt the more entertaining story or the blunt and apparent reality of what humans would perceivably do to survive on a castaway boat. It’s a novel acting as a perfect analogy for atheism v religion

  • swarnim

    it a good ,adventure book. asupeb one

  • No name

    You can give better review

  • farida_dn

    i recommend you to read this book ! love, love and love it 😀

  • What do you mean with that you want to know the thruth. (people or animales on the boat) first of all this is fantasy and nothing i thruth, and the book goes under the genre novel. one of the points in a novel is that it should be a open ending.

    • Dominick the 513 artist

      you should be stunned by the author. writing this book must have been hard and exciting it is one of the most common and read books in America.

  • lydia

    I absoultely love this review. So respectful and thoughtful. Well done. I just wanted to comment on your last sentence where you stated you might change your choice if there was evidence. The point is, the first story never had and never will have evidence…at least the kind that the second story has. You either believe it….or you dont. Don’t wait for evidence is what I mean….might cost a lot.

  • smit

    good !!!awsum!!!!must read it…

  • idhika

    good review

  • nolan barton

    i fucking hate this book.

    • mark

      me too