Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Discussion About Life of Pi

So I really screwed the pooch on this one. But I can admit when I'm wrong, so my apologies to the approximately 1,252 people who have told me at some point during the last several years how much they loved Life of Pi, and at whom I secretly snickered behind their backs.

Life of Pi is that one novel that I've consciously avoided. The reason is because I had several mistaken impressions about what it really was — it was about a talking tiger, it was a shamelessly religious novel, it was a silly kid's book. And I never did much deeper thinking or reading about the book to correct those wrongs.

A few weeks ago, I found a cheap mass market paperback at an independent bookstore here in Chicago, and I wanted to buy something there, so I grabbed it — and then read it in about three sittings. I  won't say it'll ever be my favorite novel of all time, but it actually is really, really good. More importantly, it fulfilled one of my favorite criteria regarding good fiction: It made me think really hard about some pretty deep, heady questions.

Formally reviewing this novel at this point — after everyone and their brother's sister has read it — would be akin to trying to find something new to say about Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby. So, instead, because so many people have read it, and because this is a book that screams to be discussed, let's have a conversation here.

(SPOILER ALERT - if you haven't read the novel yet, you may want to stop here.)

So if I'm not mistaken, the rub seems to be related to the existence of God, and how organized religion (ritual, belief systems, etc.) supplements or is detrimental to our understanding of God. This isn't apparent until the end, though. Even as we follow Pi through the first section in Pondicherry, India, and wonder with him why he can't be Hindu, Muslim and Christian all at once, it's not apparent what the religious discussions may have to do with anything else, other than just showing that Pi takes a rather philosophical approach to theology. As he begins to fall into a routine (ritual?) on his life raft, he stops a few times to ponder existentially about his place in the universe. But, at that point, I was still just reading the novel as an headier-than-thou adventure story. 

It's not really until the last section when Pi tells the "alternate" and much more horrific version of the story to the Japanese business men, and then tells them they should decide on the story they like better. Of course, he's also telling the reader s/he must decide, too  — and not just about his story, about whether or not you want to believe there's a God, because you can't prove that there is, and you can't prove that there isn't. So pick the story you like more.

So, which story did you pick — do you think the tiger story is the real one, or the more gruesome story about the cook and the sailor and Pi's mother?  (My vote is the latter.)

Also, anyone have any favorite passages? This book is wonderfully written, and I found myself stopping and rereading sections just to better digest the language. My favorite is the entire Chapter 78 — Martel begins by describing the sky and then the sea, and then moves onto a discussion about opposites and duality. "The worst pair of opposites is boredom and terror." I just loved it!


  1. I don't know that there is a "real" story- it seems that Martel is using the dual stories to give the reader a chance to do some reflecting on his own beliefs. It's sort of like how Henry James never really tells you what's going on in The Turn of the Screw, but instead uses the narrative to expose parts of you, to you.

    I initially found the second ending tacked on and hurried, and it honestly pissed me off that I'd spent 300 or so pages with the boy and his tiger just to be told that it maybe didn't happen that way. Couldn't Martel have found a less grating way to make his point, I wondered. But it grew on me, and now I look back on the novel with fondness. And irritation. Irritated fondness. Like an annoying but cute baby.

  2. I loved the chapter with the carnivorous island. And I choose to believe the version with the tiger.

  3. It's been years since I read this novel, but I LOVED it. Wished I could remember it well enough to respond to your questions. Maybe I need to reread it. :)

  4. I also need to reread this. I read it right when it was first published about 7 years ago and can only recall that I liked it very much. But Greg, I'm glad you finally broke down and read it! More importantly, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  5. I only read half of your post because I haven't actually read this yet, but I've stayed away for the same reasons. Then again, it's the only book my brother (who really doesn't read much) has actually read cover-to-cover in the last 5 years, so I'm intrigued for that reason alone...

  6. This is one of those few pre-blogging-days books that I, as a self-professed literary amnesiac, actually remember. That right there says a lot.

    The second story opened my eyes, but (and maybe this is cheating, but oh well) I didn't really choose between the two. I kind of just let both possibilities hang there and I have been occasionally mulling them over ever since.

  7. I thought I liked Life of Pi until I read Robinson Crusoe. Then I realized it was a retread of a theological-treatise-smack-dab-in the-middle-of-an-adventure-story. I think Defoe did a better job, although it is not as readable as Martel.
    As far as the story I chose. I honestly didn't think twice about it: I chose the first. It seems he told the second story just to satisfy the nay-sayers (a common thing among those who have actually had an experience who come up against others who disbelieve). I think it was more a statement about what we will compromise when we tell others about our beliefs.

  8. @Jane - My initial reaction to the alternate story was also total annoyance! But I think it actually is important to pick which one you think prefer - which, you're right, is an indirect line into your own belief system. Annoying cute babe = ha!

    @Lenore - That was one of the highlights for me, too. Martel is so descriptive, you could practically taste the delicious algae along with Pi.

    @Janna - Reread, away! ;)

    @Brenna - Thanks, I'm glad I finally got over my silly preconceptions, and read it, too.

    @Kerry - As a convert, I'd recommend it. If you don't like it, well then at least it's a quick read. ;)

    @Kathy - That seems to be a common response - it reminds me the Shrodinger's cat - that until you decide (until the box is opened), both parallel universes exist with equal legitimacy.

    @Leah - Very interesting take - and a good argument for the first story. And the Defoe angle is one I hadn't thought of, but it makes sense...

  9. I don't think you can answer the question of which story is true, in fact, I think the whole point of the book is that there isn't an answer to that question. The point is that you just have to choose to believe. You either do or you don't. To have one of the stories be the 'true' one would defeat martel's purpose in discussing religion and belief. I really enjoyed this story

  10. @Becky - You're right - we can't know which one is true, but one of them is! It has to be. But, luckily, you get to choose which one you think it is (whether God does or does not exist). But if you don't, if you on't believe either is true, then you're an agnostic - a doubter, a fence-sitter, which Martel harangued against earlier in the book. So, yeah, I think one is true - we just can't know which one.

  11. Greg, my attitude was the same as yours when it came to this book. After reading your thoughts (but not the spoiler) I may have to go ahead and put this on my reading list.

  12. I loved this book...and classify it with other great pilgrimage stories.

    You might get an interesting appreciation for Yann Martel if you check out the blog: What is Stephen Harper Reading? http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca/about/

    The link is to the about page for the background story. It also makes a great reading list.

  13. I'm a recent newcomer to this book, too--glad to see you've got something going on it. If I might have a couple... paragraphs...

    I was impressed with how Martel could (with all his detail) make Pi's first story mostly believable even from a rational perspective. But that poses problems for his ending.

    It's a flawed analogy. A boy living on a raft with a tiger for 277 days is a tough sell, but not nearly as much as, say, a persuasive talking snake or a supersonic flying donkey. So to believe "the story with the animals" isn't the leap of faith that one takes to believe in the celebrated stories of religion or God. The ending's clever and thought-provoking, but it doesn't work as a litmus test for faith.

    I'm surprised to see someone preferring the second story, Greg. I got the feeling that the half-assed nature of its telling would unfairly keep people from believing it (another problem with the analogy). How'd you come about that pick?

  14. I loved this book so much I actually geeked out on it and joined the Barnes and Noble University course about it. I miss BNU. Glad you finally read it and enjoyed it!

  15. Greg-- I, personally, am drawn to the realistic version of the story. Underlying any Faith is the notion that despite the lack of any proof, there is an absolute truth that exists.

    To me, the first story is about religion. An explanation to things that cannot be proven or understood. The second is a story bound by the normal laws of nature. And unless you're on that boat, you can't really understand that one either.

    I think this book isn't about what story is the correct one, but an acknowledgement that neither is anything close to the truth. Of course, I'm about 6-7 year removed from reading it, so I may have erroneous memories of it.

  16. @SariJ - Yeah, that's a probably a good idea. ;) Just look at the discussion the book's inspired here - people have some pretty strong opinions!

    @Valerie - Thanks for the link! I saw that on Martell's site, too - made me laugh, like he's trying to educate a philistine.

    @thwok - Not prefer, believe - I believe the latter horrific story is the more true one because it seemed the more realistic. The whimsical, magical story seemed to be the cover for the trauma of the first - hence, it being hastily thrown together. That's my logic, and I'm sticking too it. Which one did you choose? So if I understand your faulty analogy argument, it's that the tiger story doesn't require you suspend disbelief in the same way that a man walked on water, turned water into wine and rose from the dead, eg.? But what if the analogy just means is there a God or not? What if it's just a parable? Oh, the fodder for further discussion....

    @Trisha - Ah, yeah - BNU. I miss it, too! ;)

    @Syntaxin - Hey, Rico! Interesting point - that neither story is absolutely true. But one must be more "truer" than the other, or the analogy doesn't work (and it may not anyway, as thwok points out). I agree with your second paragraph - that's why chose the more "realistic" one, too. Hope you're well!

  17. I choose "not". And, to be honest, I read this book and I had no idea this is what it was about. I guess that makes me stupid. I should re-read it, but this review was good enough that I don't think I need to.

  18. "The whimsical, magical story seemed to be the cover for the trauma of the first--hence, it being hastily thrown together."
    Ah! And maybe not hastily thrown together, but sped through--because if that were a real experience, who'd want to relive it in detail? (Granted, the "animal" version is also harrowing and traumatic at times...)
    So here's where the book connects for me, and it's close to what you and Syntaxin are talking about: even if a story never took place, can it still be "true"? Maybe it speaks to you in a certain way that makes it seem more honest than a true story that doesn't. I figured this was another reason why many people would believe the animal version--it's more likely to contain "truth" for them, as opposed to facts.
    That's why I'm convinced that Life of Pi wants to be that kind of analogy for faith.
    Oh yeah, and story I chose was the first, because what the hell.

  19. this book is one of my favourites, i'm with kenneth in saying that when i read it i didn't realise it was about faith - i was captivated by the incredible language (one of my favourite lines is about how it is impossible to really capture the feeling in words of having an elephant ruffle through your hair looking for peanuts,) intrigued by the unusual story and then utterly heartbroken to read the 'true' story at the end. my take was that he had been through a horrific experience and told himself this incredible story to be able to psychologically survive it. your review makes me want to re-read it and try to get the faith analogy.

  20. I also haven't made an effort to read this book because the story about a boy and a tiger in a boat just doesn't grab me. But I think I'm going to have to get this one soon, at least so that I can cross it off my list.And perhaps I will even enjoy it as well.

  21. Hi. Nice to meet you. Stopping by through the Hop.
    I too had been avoiding “Pi” but have begunthinking I want to read it. Great post. I do believe I’m going to have to give it a read.


  22. P.S. Great blog! I'm adding it to my Google Reader now. - Melissa

  23. Hopping by to say Hi.

    I'll be checking out your blog :)


    Personal Book Blog

    Group Book Blog

  24. Hi -- I found you through the blog hop and am now following you.

    I have to re-read this one as well; I distinctly remember being flummoxed by the ending. Have you read Beatrice and Virgil yet? Equally shocking and great for discussion

  25. I read this book about 5 or 6 years ago, and I really liked it then. Have to say that I'm really loving the new cover though that you're displaying on your site. It's lovely!

  26. I think I last read this book two years ago or so. A friend of mine gave me a beautiful edition, the one with the illustrations, and it sort of looks like a coffee table book. I enjoyed it, although I did have some "Meh" feelings about the religions-arc. But that's personal taste. I remember I treated it as one giant narrative, with digressions and back stories. I don't know how I'll read it if I reread it.

    And, my god, I don't know how this ends.

    I just have to say that this is my first encounter with "screwed the pooch." :]

  27. ACK, I just remembered something.

    That floating island with the evil vines? I *know* I was muttering "WTF WTF WTF" while it lasted. That was just . . . random.

    Come to think of it, a lot of this book's random.

  28. I think the point is that both stories are credible, just as the Jewish, Christian, Islam versions of Christ are all credible. The way you see these 'stories' depends on your point of view, beliefs, etc. Martel makes a brilliant point that religion is about perspective and that different versions of the same series of events can be correct. BTW: Like you, I consciously avoided this book due to the hype, but was very pleased to discover as I read it that it deserved every bit.

  29. It's hard to remember the details of this book but I do remember that I loved it myself. I found it immensely moving and utterly realistic for as fantastic a story as it was. And I chose to believe the latter story as opposed to the tiger.

    Not being a reader of lit crit or book reviews (other than this site), I completely missed the faith question as the overarching theme of this book. Instead, I found myself questioning the nature of reality (which may be the same thing) and whether or not cultural mores must be absolute. Is there ever a time when breaking taboos might just be acceptable, no matter how often they seem from the confines of your bed (or wherever you do most of your reading)?

    Kudos to you for finally breaking down and reading this Greg. It's hard for me to change my mind once I've set it, whether or not I've based my opinion in any kind of actual experience. So good on ya!

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  31. Regarding spirituality, at the end the writer is presented with the question of which version he prefers. The writer chooses the first version. What does this mean?

    Looking back, Pi realizes that while the carnivorous island may provide, it is a world of basic survival and ultimately unsatisfying to him. Thus Pi would rather risk going back into the unknown ocean, a spiritual journey, than live and die that way.

    The writer is told earlier on that Pi's story will make him believe in God. Thinking that life, just as in the book, provides no right answers, one realizes that we are left with just a choice. Pi concludes, "and so goes religion." God is the choice the writer just had to make.

  32. I’ve just watched Life of pi. I have read peoples take on the film and mine isn’t in line with the ones I’ve read.

    I thought the two stories were to question our perspectives and about how we look and interrupt others. With the two stories your perception of pi changes, just with his class friends at the start.

    We sore pi was nick named piscine. We then sore how he went about creating a new name for himself. he demonstrated how emotionally intelligent he was.

    So when he told the second story i wasn’t left asking which story was true. I was asking why he told two stories. I understood this as an insecurity. He was trying to protect how he would be perceived by others, is he a hero or a victim?

    I believe the two stories cancel each other out so you feel neutral towards pi. He’s not branded either way. People don’t pity him, nor can he be admired.

    This leaves pi able to move on with his life and this defining moment doesn’t define him. And the question of faith is to simply distract.

    The tiger represents him in the sense tigers are seen as the masters of their surrounding perfectly camouflaged calculated and focused.

    The pi number I understood to represent how the character pi was driven to keep moving and out lined the overall story were your opinion of pi isn’t settled just like the number pi it has no closure.