As I said, at this the author largely succeeds. One could nitpick about the some things. The way the author’s shifting back and forth between the present day Pi, and his interactions with the narrator, and the survival story serves little purpose and is soon dropped. How Pi’s voice seems a little too ageless. One can grant Pi a great deal of knowledge about animals given his background but his thoughts and language quite often break the bounds of a 16 year-old boy. There are here and there these type of flaws, but overall the story really is wondrous.
It is in turns captivating, surreal, frightening, disgusting, and comforting. Martel puts us on that boat and forces us to think about what we might feel. As the force of the story carries you along, you can’t help but thinking: what would I do, would I be able to survive? This is the engine of the story and the author has obviously done his homework. His descriptions of a host of incredible and fascinating activities seem real and wholly plausible. The discussions of animal behavior are interesting and based in reality but mixed in with this is a strong dose of imagination and wonder. It is amazing to think that someone could write over 200 pages retelling the story of being lost at sea and not lose your attention. It is to Martel’s great credit that the story rarely if ever drags. If you like interesting and creative storytelling, the Life of Pi is a fine specimen of the art. It brings alive a world most of us have never imagined.
The question remains: is the Life of Pi more than just a story? This is where I believe the novel breaks down. One of the main reasons I wanted to read the book was because of my interest in its religious and spiritual dimension. Here was a book that was supposed to make you believe in God (or so the cover claims). Here was a book that took faith seriously, didn’t hold to that hard materialist worldview. After reading it, however, I think Martel substitutes a hard materialist viewpoint for a mystical post-modern view of the role of religion.
There were some early quotes in the novel that peaked my interest and stoked my hopes for a story with a deeper meaning. Pi is from the start a pious boy (and I mean that without the modern negative connotation).
After interacting with an atheist teacher, he admits:
I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get struck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
It is obvious from this passage and others like it that the author and the character see religious belief and faith as an integral part of life; as toucing something crucial to our humanity. As Pi describes his religious development and his unique decision to adopt Hinduism, AND Christianity, AND Islam this passion and insight comes through. Martel seems to understand that these historic faiths are not just words in a book or myths handed down from ancient times, but that they are deeply intertwined with who people are in these societies. Pi experiences and embraces the unique and attractive aspects of each faith. He brings a nearly blank slate, a uniquely open mind and soul to these religions.