You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Life of Pi

Yann Martels' novel Life of Pi starts in India where the narrator grows up working at his family's zoo. Pi learns about animals but he also finds an interest in God. He becomes a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu, to the consternation of his family and the frustration of the local religious leaders. Pi insists on the unity of God amid the many forms of worship, which sets him up as a sort of central unifying figure of faith.

The family closes the zoo and sends the animals away. They take a ship with some of the animals to Canada but disaster strikes when the ship sinks. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra with a broken leg. The hyena is bloodthirsty and eats the zebra then kills the orangutan. Now Pi discovers that underneath the tarp at the other end of is a large tiger named Richard Parker. Richard Parker emerges from the tarp and kills the hyena. For the rest of the time Pi and Richard Parker survive in a wary coexistence. Pi uses his knowledge of animal behavior to keep the tiger alive but tame. He knows that if the tiger gets too hungry he will lose his conditioning and eat Pi, though Pi provides the tiger with food and water by fishing and using water distillers.

The story on the lifeboat can be read on at least two or three levels. On the literal level are the real-life events of his survival described by Pi at the end. These are horrifying but realistic. On the metaphoric level is Pi's story of his and the tiger's uneasy existence on the lifeboat for months. I interpreted the tiger to be the dark side of Pi that reveals itself when he is threatened and helps him through a difficult time. It is the aggression or violence inside him. He must then tame it to survive, lest it overcome him. (This is reminiscent of Captain Kirk's two personalities in the episode where he becomes split in two.) One other possibility to interpret the story is the the tiger is the faith that he uses to help him survive the long ordeal at sea. This interpretation is more in line with the opening of the book and comments at the end, however the tiger's actions and Pi's relationship to it seem much more ambivalent, even negative, than his descriptions of faith. As such the themes seem a little out of sync.

Before Pi and Richard Parker make it to land they encounter a strange island of floating algae with lush trees growing providing fruit and thousands of tame meerkats. Pi determines to leave when he discovers that inside part of the trees are teeth, and the floor of the island becomes acidic at night. He calls the island carnivorous and decides that despite its seeming pleasantness he cannot stay another night. This part is an enjoyable and fantastic, though it seems to lack any metaphoric content with the rest of the story.

I enjoyed the fantastic elements of the novel even before the end where Pi gives the more literal version of the story. The description of events on the lifeboat is harrowing and suspenseful. Pi is resourceful; he figures how to keep himself and Richard Parker alive with the meager supplies on the boat. I felt that the central part of the narrative worked well with the framing, though not perfectly. The story tries to be about faith and God, but though Richard Parker stays with Pi until the end of his story and then leaves, I'm not sure that his actions and Pi's relationship with him is one of faith. The book was enjoyable on all levels. It definitely made me think. B+


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