I don’t think I’ve ever read a book which has divided my opinion of it as much as Yann Martel’s award winning ‘The Life of Pi’ has. I reacted very differently to different aspects of this book, which is why I am dividing this post into three sections so that I can keep my thoughts on track and hopefully present you with a coherent review. Those three sections are the story, the style and the spirituality.
1) The Story
I’ll try to write this section without giving the plot details away for anyone who is interested in reading the book. Essentially, the book is the story of a young boy, Pi Patel, who loses his family in a shipwreck of which he is the only human survivor. Martel describes Pi’s early life in India in Part 1 of the book, before moving into a long narrative of the boy’s adventures at sea in Part 2, rounding off the loose ends in the very short Part 3. I’m going to be blunt here: the story is not very exciting. For large parts of the book, not a lot happens. To be fair to Martel, how do you make over 200 days at sea consistently interesting to read? Martel is not wholly unsuccessful, for reasons which will be explained in the next section, but overall, I did find the plot to be a bit of a drag. I will freely admit that that’s probably at least partly down to the fact that this book is very different from the fantasy/adventure type novels that I personally prefer, but I can’t help but think that the novel lacks ‘hooks’, for want of a better word. It’s not the kind of book that made me want to keep turning the page – I could put it down if I thought of something better to do. For me, the storyline is the weakest aspect of this novel, but there are certainly other areas of interest.
2) The Style
Martel partly makes up for the lack of interest in the storyline through a combination of engaging humour and beautiful descriptions. I wish I’d book-marked some pages in the book to give you quotes from, but I haven’t. You’ll have to take my word for it (or read the book yourself) when I say that some of Martel’s descriptions of the natural world, in particular, Richard Parker, the Bengal Tiger (yes, his name really is Richard Parker!), are nothing short of magnificent. Truly, parts of this book are breathtaking. Then there are the elements of humour, certainly more frequent in Part 1 and Part 3 of the book, which is to be expected, given that in Part 2, Pi is struggling to survive at sea. I have to admit, I did find Part 3 brilliant, as 2 Japanese investigators attempt to find out the truth of Pi Patel’s story and it is that humour that keeps this book lively when it might otherwise fall flat on its face. I can’t help but think that if Martel’s wit and magnificent writing style were coupled with a suitably exciting storyline, I would have just read one of the best books that I have ever read in my life. However, there is one more very important element to this book which I cannot ignore and do not want to ignore.
I don’t know what Yann Martel’s personal religious beliefs are, but he certainly presents the views of his central character as desirable and superior to other religious views. I expect that, in many ways, Pi Patel’s amalgamation of Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam is appealing to many people in our post-modern, Western culture, but I cannot help but disagree with it.
Let me just give you a couple of quotes from the book provided by two of my friends on Facebook:
“And so, when she first heard of Hare Krishnas, she didn’t hear right. She heard ‘hairless Christians’, and that is what they were to her for many years. When I corrected her, I told her that in fact she was not so wrong; that Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.”
“If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?”
I’ve attempted to provide a Christian argument against that type of idea here: https://bengarry.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/christianity-is-not-a-supermarket/
However, this is a book review and not a philosophical argument, so I won’t go over all that again. What I will say is that the way Martel presents Pi’s arguments is frustrating for a Christian like me. Pit focuses on elements of Christianity, such as love, and not the whole, meaning that it does fit with his other religions. This means that one cannot just argue against the philosophy, one has to correct its mistakes as well. The more worrying part for me is a scene in which a Catholic Priest, a Hindu Pandit and a Muslim Imam confront Pi simultaneously about his allegiance to all three faiths, an encounter which presents the religious leaders as narrow-minded bigots and Pi as an innocent child just doing his best to love God.
That said, there are some positives. The existence of God is never doubted, which is refreshing in a modern, secular book and Pi’s faith remains strong even in the toughest of times. There is also a spiritual metaphor built into the book, but, despite having seen the film and read the book, I’m not really sure what Martel is trying to say. Finally, another interesting aspect of the spiritual side of this book is that Martel isn’t afraid to say that atheists have faith, a claim that is acknowledged by most Christians and spluttered at by some atheists (yes, Dr. Dawkins, I’m looking at you), although in a way, atheists are praised for being able to have a faith. The one group that Martel attacks above all is agnostics, for sitting on the fence and not committing to anything, which I find very interesting at a time when agnosticism is an accepted, valid perspective.
Well, there you have a brief review of the book that really doesn’t do it justice. On the whole, it was worth a read, though it did require patience in some places. I’d imagine that everyone will react differently to it, depending on their own outlooks in life and I respect that, I am not saying that this review is the way that everyone should respond to the book! Martel’s ability as an author cannot be doubted, though as I have said, the plot could do with a bit of spice every now and then. Would I read it again? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Not to everyone – it would probably appeal to more philosophical people who like a meander through different ideas, but as I’ve said, it’s worth a read.
My final rating is a 6/10.