Book review: Life of Pi

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I confess I only read this book because it was on a bookmark I received as a gift: “50 books to read before you die”. Despite the huge publicity around the book and subsequent film, I was not sufficiently interested to spend money on the book until I saw it in a deal with The Hobbit.

Life of Pi tells the story of a young Indian boy with the name of Piscine Molitor Patel. Early on we discover the convoluted reason for this unlikely name, and also an insight into the ponderous and pedantic character of Pi’s father, who is owner of the Pondicherry Zoo. Through exposure to Christianity, Islam and Hindu holy men, he forms his own synthetic religion which grows and changes throughout the narrative. 

When the zoo business suffers financial difficulty, the family sets sail for Canada, along with a collection of animals. A severe storm destroys the flimsy boat, leaving sixteen-year-old Pi as the sole human survivor, sharing the lifeboat with a zebra, a female orang-utan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Most of the book is concerned with Pi’s struggle to survive the harsh conditions, and avoid being eaten by the tiger, until he is washed ashore on the beach in Mexico.

Pi endures storms, blazing sun and flying fish, all the while narrating in great detail the imaginative ways he uses equipment from the lifeboat to survive the harsh conditions, for example how to use a solar still to purify rainwater . At times these descriptions become tedious, perhaps indicating that he has inherited his father’s pedantic pedagogy.

The novel is cleverly crafted, beginning and ending with interviews. At the start we meet the Canadian journalist who records for us the incredible story. At first he intersperses his own impressions of his subject, but these gradually fade under the onslaught of Pi’s relentless narration. And the final interview, coming completely out of the blue, leaves the reader with many questions regarding his or her judgement.

Yann Martel has written a very clever book, which causes the reader to think carefully about the nature of truth, both in terms of religion and experience. Pi also offers much practical information. But for me it became too much of a good thing. If it was not on my 50 list and had I not committed to write a review, I would probably have stopped reading half way through.

Life of Pi is written by Yann Martel and published by Canongate.

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About prophetable

My wife Elizabeth and I were commissioned as Officers (ministers) in The Salvation Army in 1997, and have served in appointments in England and Scotland. Since July 2016 I have been working in The Salvation Army's Scotland Office as combined parliamentary and ecumenical representative.
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