The first section of the book is about Piscine Patel’s youth in Pondicherry, India. His name, correctly pronounced “peeseen” was too often reduced to “pissing,” so when he moved to a new school, just before the teacher called his name, he lept to the chalkboard and wrote his name as “Pi” Patel. His father owns a zoo in the city park, so much of his life is spent with animals and two of his statements are important for the book. The first is that animals want stability, which is not easy in the wild. In the zoo, however, they are fed regularly and have a distinct territory free from worry, a parallel to humans, who shut ourselves in houses and jobs when we could be free to roam. In fact, he notes that animals that escape usually want to come back. The second statement is that animals are very adaptable, and claims that if you “shook Tokyo upside down you would be amazed at the [menagerie] that would fall out”.
Most of the description of his youth, however, was spent in his discovery of religion. Pi was an adherent to three major religions: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. From Christianity he learned that God is so generous that he gave his life for us. From Islam he learns devotion to God. From Hinduism he learns that God is in everything. Although the three religions are seen as mutually exclusive by their adherents, Pi does not view them that way, synchretizing them in the apparent belief that none of them fully represent God.
Eventually Pi’s family decides that the Mrs. Ghandi’s New India is not for them and they sell the zoo animals to various places in the America’s. They hire a cargo boat to transport themselves and the cargo across the Pacific, with the aim to settle in Canada. Unfortunately, the ship suddenly sinks after leaving Manila, and he is left destitute on a lifeboat with only himself, a Bengal tiger, a female orangutan (sadly, without the bananas she had been floating on), a zebra with a broken leg, and a hyena. The zebra is slowly eaten alive by the hyena over a period of several days. The orangutan was quickly killed, as her zoo upbringing had not taught her the subtleties of fighting. Shortly thereafter the tiger, named Richard Parker after the hunter who had captured him after killing his rampaging mother, dispatched the hyena, who gave up without a fight.
Pi was left Richard Parker as his sole companion, and Pi fled the lifeboat to a small raft he cobbled together from available materials. The lifeboat had a number of cans of water and food rations, some floating water stills for distilling seawater, some orange whistles, a few hooks and fishing line, and a book on survival in a lifeboat. Pi derived most of his sustenance from the fish he caught and began giving some of the fish and distilled water to Richard Parker.
After a while Pi decided that he needed to be able to habit the boat and he began training Richard Parker. The key, he said, was to show Richard Parker that Pi was the super-alpha male, thus gaining Richard Parker’s submission. This he proceeded to do by creating an association between the sound of the whistle and Richard Parker’s nausea when the extension of Pi’s raft caused the lifeboat to catch the waves more heavily. Pi knew that he had succeeded when he won a fight over a fish by staring Richard Parker down and they settled down into divided boat, with Richard Parker’s territory being under the tarpaulin that covered half the boat.
After this Pi mostly subsisted without incident, until the salt caused him and Richard Parker to go blind. At this point he met a French cook, also adrift, and also blind. They talked about food. The Frenchman came aboard Pi’s boat, but had the misfortune to slip into Richard Parker’s territory, and that was the end of the Frenchman. Soon a rain came that washed away Pi’s blindness.
Shortly after this the boat made landfall on a floating island. The island was inhabited solely by a large amount of meerkats (which Richard Parker ate many of), with a freshwater lake, created by the desalination action of the seaweed comprising much of the island, in the middle that newly dead (and eatable) fish floated up in. The solution to the mystery of the dead fish, why Richard Parker always returned to the lifeboat each evening, and why the meerkats slept in the trees was solved when Pi discovered some fruit in one of the trees. The “fruit” was thickly wrapped leaves containing a full set of human teeth. Pi verified that the island was carnivorous, as the lake and island floor turned into acid after nightfall so that the island could digest its kills. Pi realized that while he could leave a pleasant life like the meerkats, to stay would be spiritual death, so he and Richard Parker left, arriving on the South American shore sometime thereafter, after a trip of 227 days.
In the third part, two Japanese from the company that owned the ship question Pi to try to determine why the ship sank. Since none of the crew spoke English and Pi had only accidentally woken up in time to escape the ship, he could not inform them. The Japanese did not believe his story and repeatedly asked him to tell the truth. They said they wanted a real story, a story without animals, a story that was believable. So Pi told a short story about how he, his mother, a Chinese sailor, and a French cook escaped to the lifeboat. The cook (the hyena) slowly ate the sailor (the zebra), eventually killing Pi’s mother (the orangutan). Pi (the tiger) was incensed at this and killed the cook, who seemed to let himself be killed out of shame.
The crux of the book comes when Pi asks the Japanese men which story they like better. They reply that they like the first one best, whereupon Pi replies that since they cannot know which one is true (Richard Parker had left for the jungle immediately after the lifeboat had grounded—"and they thought they could—hah—find a tiger in the middle of a jungle! Ha, ha!”), why not choose the better story? Then, in one short sentence, he reveals the purpose of the book, adding parenthetically, “And so it is with God.” Their final report says that the cause of the sinking is unknown, but notes that the sole survivor has an amazing tale of survival on the Pacific.
Which tale is true? Clearly the first one is not credible, because a large floating island could not have gone unnoticed in the middle twentieth century. The second story is much more believable, and the trauma of his mother’s death could have lead to the creation of the original story. However, the second story is a standard hardship-at-sea-leads-to-cannibalism story. Furthermore, the narrative describes the second story as told after Pi got the specifications of the story that the Japanese wanted, so it is possible that neither is true and that Pi, in keeping with his view of God, does not plan to tell the real one.
While Life of Pi has an engaging and interesting maritime tale, the book as a whole is somewhat disappointing. Widely read readers will likely be able to ignore the fact that there is no plot in the first half of the book on the assumption that the author has a good reason for doing it that way, but less eager readers may find it dull. Furthermore, the theme and direction of the book are not revealed until one sentence at the very end contrasts the two hundred fifty page introduction and narrative with a brief, more believable but less compelling story. This gives book the book a sort of “trick theme”, à la short stories, which, while good and expected for short stories, leave the reader disillusioned in a novel. In fact, the novel structure is not followed at all; there is no beginning, no rising action or denoument, nor any real climax, because there is no plot for the first hundred pages (although interesting vignettes) and little plot (although fascinating descriptions) in the second part.
Is this a tale to make you believe in God? If the answer is that since God is unknowable, we should choose the best description of Him, the best story about Him, then yes, the book certainly makes it easy to believe in a God you want to believe in. However, if you are looking for the real God, whoever He may be, that God does not make His appearance known in this book.
The complete discarding of the novel structure (in a book titled Life of Pi: A Novel) and the “trick theme” really costs this book. As written, the book would make a much better short story (maybe 100 pages max) than a novel, it’s structure is that of a short story. Although the book contains a good story and is very consistent, with some foreshadowing, little of the art of storytelling shows. Ultimately, this is a bestseller, not a classic.
- Flying fish travel in schools.
- Fantastic sea stories (e.g. Sindbad) always seem to include a floating island (which is usually a large animal) and/or an island with some sinister nature. This theme is even appropriated to space by Lucas in “Star Wars”, where the Millennium Falcon lands in a cave on an asteroid which turns out to be a creature’s mouth.
- Animals look for stability and zoos provide it; zoos are not necessarily bad (due to the fictional nature of the book, this may or may not be true, and is probably more true for animals with smaller natural territories).
- Unlikely animals may live together peaceably if somehow the
aggressor sees the prey as part of the environment. The example
was given of some snakes that lived with a rat in their cage because is
somehow became part of the environment. Also the rhinoceri and
the goats in the zoo. (There is the potential that this is
fiction, too, but it could be a good element in a story nonetheless).