Life of Pi

Life of Pi

I just finished reading this the other day and loved it, which was a surprise. I don’t know why but I have a deep, ingrained suspicion of anything that’s been on the bestseller lists and won lots of prizes. It sends up all kinds of red flags and it takes much more arm twisting by friends and relatives to get me to read those kinds of books. In this case, I have my sister to thank for not only relentlessly recommending the book but even mailing me her copy. It still sat around the house for months before I got to it; but finally the day arrived and I pulled it from the To Be Read shelf (an innovation since we moved to our new home).

in any case, Life of Pi was so much better than I’d thought. I almost hate to give a plot summary because no summary can even begin to capture what makes this book worth reading. In brief, though, it’s the story of an Indian youth who is shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific. He somehow survives in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger and an assortment of other animals. And that’s not at all what the story is about. Not really. No more than Moby Dick is about hunting whales.

I’m sure it’s been said before, probably even in the blurbs on the back; but this book had a distinct flavor of Moby Dick about it. I suppose it’s a natural comparison because they are both sea yarns; but it was more than that. Martel has the same sort of love for detail, for encyclopedic cataloging and for the fascinating peculiarities of the animal kingdom. He has the same knack for wedding his intricate descriptions of the mundane with glimpses of the divine order that shine through such details.

There are chapters and chapters about the art and science of zookeeping, about the habits and training of various animals, especially of tigers. However, unlike with Melville for whom the connections are implicit, Martel makes the explicit connection between the scientific and the theological. His hero majors both in biology and in religious studies and he brings to his science the sensibilities of the believer and to his religion the logic of the scientist. (Except for the annoying synchretism that allows him to be at once a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Catholic; but that was really the only fault I found with the novel.)

From one of my favorite chapters, very early in the book, comes a great discourse on zoos:

I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion. Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are “happy” because they are “free”. These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of a gnu or of an aardvark is rarely exalted). . . . The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. Its “happiness” is dashed. It yearns mightily for “freedom” and does all it can to escape. Being denied its “freedom” for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

This is not the way it is.

Animals in the wild live lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context?

. . . A good zoo is a place of carefully worked-out coincidence: exactly where an animal says to us, “Stay out!” with its urine or other secretion, we say to it, “Stay in!” with our barriers. Under such conditions of diplomatic peace, all animals are content and we can relax and have a look at each other. . . .

. . . I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.

Life of Pi is worth picking up. It’s Kipling meets Melville with a dash of Patrick O’Brien (at times the hero, Pi, reminds me a bit of the naturalist Stephen Maturin who sails with Patrick O’Brien’s heroic Captain Jack Aubrey). It’s the kind of book that when you turn the last page you want to go back to the beginning and start it all over again. It will leave you thinking.

Note: I should add a warning for those with squeamish stomachs. There are a couple of pretty graphic scenes of animal violence as well as references to murder and cannibalism. 

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