I just put this book down a half hour ago, and I still feel warm and tingly inside. It’s one of those rare feelings you get from fiction, an emotion of transcendence, of religious revelation. This is what, I believe, men like Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Mohammed were feeling when they were talking to God. As a long time agnostic, I have never accepted the literal truth of religion. For me, the Torah and the New Testament and the Koran are parts history, science, philosophy, poetry and fiction; but fiction can be a powerful thing. This sentiment is at the very core of Life of Pi, because it is, at its heart, a book about God and the value of belief. The novel starts with a prologue written by the author, who allegedly meets a friend of the main character, Pi Patel. This friend tells the author, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” A bold claim for anyone, including the author (who is obviously speaking to the reader), to make. So bold, in fact, I laughed it off, and continued reading in the hopes of at least being entertained, possibly enlightened. But while the book did not change my beliefs in a literal God, it did reaffirm what I have long held to be true, that metaphorical truth is sometimes as important, if not more necessary, than hard, scientific facts. Which is why I do not call myself an atheist.
If you’ve seen the movie trailer (and who hasn’t?) you may be wondering, what does a story about a shipwrecked boy in a lifeboat with a bunch of animals have anything to do with religion? I was asking myself the same question throughout the whole of the novel. In fact, I had many problems with the story as I was reading it, and, since I plan to write these reviews, I kept a mental checklist of complaints (a bad habit, I know). The story starts off slow, reading like a National Geographic article on zoology. Entire chapters are devoted to the habits of various animals and to the upkeep of zoos. Interspersed between these chapters, a great deal of religion is thrown into the mix, as the main (and only) protagonist converts to Christianity and Islam, while remaining a Hindu as well, finding truth in all three faiths. Much of this seemed preachy and unnecessary to the story. Later, my list of criticisms had to do with the improbability of the events. Just how does a zebra, hyena, orangutan and a Bengal tiger get onto a lifeboat, when they were all locked in cages? Why do no other humans find their way to any of the boats? Even little details, like the extreme lack of water for the first three days at sea, made me question the novel’s plausibility. After all, Life of Pi isn’t fantasy or Sci-Fi. There are so many non-fiction survival stories out there. Why not, instead, pick up the excellent Between a Rock and Hard Place, which the movie 127 Hours was based on? A fiction survival story, at the very least, must feel 100% believable. These many problems unnerved me more due to high expectations, given all the acclaim the book has received, including the seal on the cover, “Winner of the Man Booker Prize” for which Cloud Atlas, one of my all-time favorites, was only a Finalist.
And then I came to the end, which nullified all of my complaints, and I had to slap myself for my silly assumptions. Unfortunately, I simply cannot say much more about Life of Pi, because anything I mention could be a spoiler. All I can say is, keep reading and have faith in the author. There is much more to it than survival. Like the Pacific Ocean beneath Pi Patel’s lifeboat, there is a depth of meaning to be found here. Life of Pi is a subtle work of genius, with a powerful point to make, and if you keep an open mind, whether you are a fundamentalist, an agnostic or an atheist, it may just make you believe, maybe not in God, but certainly in the power of story.