Life Of Pi: A story about humans and animals, a story about us

Posted on December 8, 2012


I was quite skeptical when I bought Life of Pi. “Seven Million copies sold?” I asked myself arching both my eyebrows. I had never heard about this book before, but then I realized that we are so overwhelmed by crass and outrageous literary crap that, often, good books remain hidden for long time.  I got immediately enchanted by Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi for short) and his account, told by the eyes of a young boy whose innocence is violated by the course of his life which leads to a list of unlucky events.
The first few pages introduce us to Pi’s life as a young boy in India. His  family owns a zoo and Pi loves and respects animals, as Hindu first and then as a human being who has been living close to them since an early age. During the mid 1970’s Pi’s family decides to leave India to settle down in Canada, in the hope of a better life. Pi, his family and all the animals of the zoo embark on the Japanese cargo Tsimtsum which, few days after, sinks and leaves Pi on a lifeboat in the company of a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan  and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The animals, dominated by a survival instinct, eat each others and the only left alive is Richard Parker whose presence is a constant threat for the frightened Pi who spends his days hidden in the boat behind an orange tarpaulin.

One of the things that render this book extraordinary, besides the story itself,  is the ability of the author Yann Martel to use a language which is refined, elegant but not redundant. The story flows across beautiful pieces of  literature in which important themes are explored. First of all, the theme of religion.
That Mr. Martel possesses a great talent, I understood it when, as atheist, I felt the strong desire to believe. This is thanks to the dilemma he created in which Pi finds Christianity, Islamism and Hinduism so beautiful that he is unable to pick a religion to follow and therefore he decides to be, at the same time, Christian, Muslim and Hindu: “The universe makes sense to me through Hindu eyes […] and I have been a Hindu all my life. With its notions in mind I see my place in the universe. […] I was fourteen years old- and a well-content Hindu on a holiday- when I met Jesus Christ.  Christianity is a religion in rush. Look at the world created in seven days. […] If  Hinduism flows placidly like the Ganges,the Christianity bustles like Toronto at rush hour. […] I entered the church without fear this time, for it was my house too now. I offered prayers to Christ, who is alive.  Then I raced down the hill on the left and raced up the hill on the right- to offer thanks to Lord Krishna for having put Jesus of Nazareth, whose humanity I found so compelling, in my way. Islam followed right behind. […]. It felt good to bring my forehead to the ground. Immediately it felt like a deeply religious contact. […] I knelt a mortal. I rose an immortal.  I felt like the centre of a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah.”

Another enchanting aspect of the book is the fluidity of the account of a castaway who is constrained to live on a life boat, in company of a tiger, for 227 days. Martel was able to render the account magnificent by mixing feelings of hope and desperation, deep thoughts and reflections with the daily life on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. Each page brought up a new aspect which kept me interested and willing to read more. By the end of the book, when Pi and the tiger finally reach land, only one thing was sure: the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker was magnificent, extraordinary and the whole world needed to stop to listen to this adventure who taught two different beings  how to live together despite any imaginable difference.

When Pi and the tiger’s ways separate, I felt sad and disappointed  by the end of their mutual commitment: ” He only looked fixedly into the jungle. Then Richard Parker, companion of my torment, awful, fierce thing that kept me alive, moved forward and disappeared forever from my life. […] I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing is to botch a farewell. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. […] I wish I had said ‘Richard Parker, it’s over. We have survived, can you believe it? I owe you more gratitude that I can express. I couldn’t have done it without you, I would like to say it formally: Richard Parker thank you for saving my life. And now go where you must. You have known the confined freedom of a zoo most of your life, now you will know the free confinement of a jungle. I wish you all the best with it. Watch out for Man. He is not your friend. But I hope you will remember me as a friend.”

As a great book is supposed to do, Life of Pi induced me to ask myself questions, to think about important themes, to feel strong emotions and the confusion of the last pages, after few days in which I felt literally betrayed by the author, led me to reflect on human beings, our greatness and our curse, things that make us admirable and other that condemn us to shame.
When Pi tells his story, the officers of the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport do not believe him: ” Mr Patel, a tiger is an incredibly dangerous wild animal. How could you survive in a lifeboat with one? It’s just too hard to believe.[..]We want a story without animals that explain the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”  Pi, therefore, tells a completely different story, or maybe not, just its characters are different: instead of animals the lifeboat is lived-in by  human beings who, dominated by primary instincts, end up killing and eating each other transcending any common sense, any decency; humans who fight in the desperate aim of surviving.

Where is then the truth set? Is more credible a story in which a tiger and a human understand how to live together for 227 days in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, or is it more acceptable to listen to the story of a bunch of people who destroy each other because, led to extreme conditions, the inner, primitive instinct that we try to disguise in daily life, emerge, dropping the mask to reveal what we really are?

To you the conclusion.
To Yann Martel all my admiration.

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