This year, I started a book club on my Youtube channel. Since then, we’ve read and discussed:
- January 2018: Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward
- February 2018: The Sellout by Paul Beatty
- March 2018: LaRose by Louise Erdrich
In April, we read Life of Pi. Read my review below or watch the video on YouTube
Life of Pi is a novel but it reads like a memoir being told through interviews. First, the author introduces the fictional writer who, on failing to write a novel, lands on the story of a boy’s shipwreck experience and proceeds to interview the now adult man, and share his story with the world. In this way, it is a story within a story, told by a person who makes up stories for a living, casting doubt on everything that appears on the pages that will follow.
Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize in 2001 and Pi is the kind of book that this prize tends to reward – an intriguing personification of real life, political events. In this case, it is the teenage Indian boy whose parents are zookeepers in Pondicherry, India, one of the last provinces to accept the union of the former independent states. With the change of political regime, the family decides to move to Canada where they can sell their animals and pursue the (North) American dream. As the father was a former hotel manager who exchanged human guests for animals, they are a family given to making adjustments and they welcome the opportunity that the change in address might bring. However, somewhere on the Pacific Ocean, the ship of dreams carrying the family, and the prized animals they hope to sell, sinks and the rest of the story, as they say, isn’t just history, it’s his story, he meaning Pi, the young hero, who alone survived to tell the tale.
While the ensuing pages are dominated with a hero’s recollection of his survival aboard a lifeboat that he shares with a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger and a few other animals that die soon after the shipwreck, when interrogated, Pi accedes to other versions – one in which the animals are people, and the violent acts committed by the tiger in his other story, are justified acts of self defense and self preservation in this one. Here, the author’s intent becomes apparent – in substituting the human guests for animals in the family’s zoo, and exploring the interactions between the species in wild and controlled environments, in his presentation of animal behavior and humanizing them, Patel achieves a effective and impressive allegory about the reality of immigration – from India and elsewhere. The tiger, often seen as a symbol of dominance and boldness, is the spirit of purpose and determination that the immigrant needs to survive. The human name given to the tiger refers to a historical sailor who was discharged from the navy for refusing to work below his rank, a concession immigrants often have to make in their new country, accepting menial jobs in order to survive.
The fictional novelist who records Pi’s story is an unrelated, and thus unbiased, reporter; years after the real-life sea adventure, the author is in India to write a book about Portugal. When he has accepted that his book has no spirit and begins trolling the streets for new opportunity, he meets a man named Francis who introduces him to the, now adult, Pi Patel.
Despite his experience with animals and inspired search for religious truth in his old life, the adult Pi is a bored student of zoology and theology, living a world away from the fantastic adventure of his youth and the dreams of his parents. The former international swimming champion Francis is reduced to sharing stories in establishments where the most interesting thing about him is not his own accomplishments but that of others. The novelist himself, a former literary star, has been reduced from creator to witness. All the characters are in some advanced decline, a smallness the narrating novelist mentions when he talks about the larger than life experiences that diminish when they become memories, the epic Pondicherry zoo that has to shrink in size to occupy space in his mind.
The youthful Pi whose enthusiastic exploration of a multiplicity of religions and godly manifestations – Christianity and Islam and Hinduism, and the intersection and diversity of their teachings – contrasts with the conclusion of the sea adventure where Pi offers several stories that are all allegories for each other. In all, Pi is stranded for 227 days, the numbers found in the ratio that makes up pi, a number with a recurring decimal, representing the continuation of the issues presented here.
There is much to enjoy about this book including the boyish take on the hero’s quest at the center of every religious story. That Pi was able to recall the lessons of his parents and use a combination of his wit and that inherited wisdom to survive, also makes it an inspirational read and the scientific information makes an intellectually-stimulating inclusion. However, there were parts in the middle where the prose waned and the journey felt like it had been going on for an eternity. Pi’s compromise of his religious and cultural values felt unacceptable, given the larger story at work here, but, in the end, also represented his quandary more adequately.
Please comment down below if you read Life of Pi and what you thought.
The May 2018 book club read is Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. I hope you’ll join me for that one too. Until then happy reading!