Recently, I interviewed for a job that required me to teach a ninth grade English class so that the administration could evaluate my teaching skills. They had read Life of Pi over the summer, and were just starting to explore all the things that a novel has to teach young high schoolers about grammar, writing, rhetoric, and life. So, I got my hands dirty and gave Life of Pi a read over the weekend. I was quite pleased with it in a lot of ways.
The story is Pi Patel’s — a boy who grows up in India but is shipwrecked when his family decides to emigrate to Canada. Roughly two-thirds of the novel deals with this shipwreck as Pi floats the Pacific Ocean in a life boat with a host of zoo animals.
Sounds like a ridiculous situation, right?
It certainly is. That’s the magic of Pi. By the time I got to this ridiculous situation, Pi’s narrative and style had me so invested in him and in his story that I couldn’t help but suspend disbelief (the same is not true of the Japanese characters who debrief Pi at the end of the novel). As Pi narrates (through the lens of an italicized “author” character) his childhood: growing up in Pondicherry, his father’s zoo, his brushes with Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam and his subsequent appropriation of all three, I came to love this little guy. Consequently, as he’s floating around the Pacific with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, I’m really concerned for the outcome of the story. Of course, at least part of this was due to my curiosity: “How is Martel gonna get this teenager off this boat?”
Things aren’t all roses, however. The author character is turned on to Pi’s story by an old friend who says that this story will “make you believe in God.” I’m not sure what that means in the context of the story. Pi’s view of religion is doctrinally challenged — he has no rules. His appropriation of Krishna and friends along with Jesus and Allah makes for a strange God-soup that is difficult to understand.
So, Pi has watered these religions down, but he has also boiled them down by reducing the three to one incontrovertible truth, one dogma: LOVE GOD.
Overall, Life of Pi really works. It’s a fun read on a lot of levels, and highly recommended. Some of Martel’s choices at the end are puzzling, mystifying, and don’t really sit well with me. But, hey, it’s not all about me, is it? I think Pi would agree.
Finally, Pi can certainly be inspirational. He’s screaming at me: “Tell the better story.” I just need to figure out what that means.