Having read this book over a month ago it feels strange to write about it now but I've had it on my mind for quite some time. For an adventure tale of zoology and faith it's not something that I would have thought I could remember and think back upon after so much time but there's something about this tale of a young Indian boy's survival on the high seas that seems to have resonated within me. It's not the tale in itself, which whilst entertaining is not something I can relate to, but the question that drives it.
First, a little background: Piscine Patel (Pi) is a young Indian boy whose family, due to worsening political / economic conditions, decide to emmigrate to Canada. Pi's father, a zookeeper, arranges to sell the animals of his Pondicherry zoo to various institutions. They plan to make their journey by boat dropping off (or exchanging) animals on the way. So the setting is set for a sea disaster involving a wide variety of animals, one of which is the co-star of much of the rest of the story.
Without revealing the many surprises and revelations of a journey filled with much excitement I can safely say that is not what makes this book so marvellous and yet irritating. Irritating in the way sometimes a question gets beneath your skin and needs to be addressed. Or when you are trying to remember the name of a song you've been humming to yourself for too long.
The book is structured effectively into three parts. [As I don't have a copy of the book at hand now I'm not sure if I'm reflecting the logical structure or the narrative structure when I say that.] The first about Pi's youthful exuberance and quest for an understanding of faith leads us gently through the essence of a multicultural India where Christianity, Hinduism and Islam interwine. For each faith Pi finds himself a mentor and adopts the religion as his. Despite the resulting conflict of a boy who honestly proclaims himself of multiple faiths, the author paints a picture of religious compatibility hidden by poor understanding, something which Pi as a child can overcome with sheer innocence.
Secularism is not excluded as Pi learns about zoology (from a suitably atheist teacher) and to a lesser extent modern commercialism from his father. One of the memorable aspects of this intertwining of scientific secularism and innocent faith is the disdain with which the author paints agnostics. Atheism in Pi's world can be accepted as a belief system but those who progress through life by hedging their bets are deemed weak willed fools. Of course, I'm putting it much more starkly then the author whose commentary is often delivered in sharp, funny lines.
In the second part of the book there is an account of survival that is never dull but still gives the feeling of being abandoned, cold, alone and lapsing into death when I read it. There were passages which when I read them made me shiver with cold and thirsty they were so gripping and immersive. So vivid and realistic is the narrative, so moving and engaging, you find yourself cheering Pi and becoming despondent at the thought he may not make it through. It becomes impossible to imagine the author letting this talented survivalist die a murky death that seems increasingly inevitable.
Yet as this goes on greatly improbable events and good fortune put a nagging doubt in the back of my head. So convincing the depth of facts and so believable the responses, even when they were extraordinary, I could suspend disbelief and not question the author's ability to weave a believable story. One event nearly pushed me over the edge and whilst still entertained I felt a little cheated by the plot device that seemed clumsily dropped in (this for those who've read it involves a French cook). Yet I continued to absorb every delicious word and glad that I did it.
You see the third part of the book is where I discovered that the narrative itself had been an illusion. I'm not talking about it being true or false, either within the context of the story or in the 'real' world. I'm talking about the really interesting thing about the book is not within its pages but outside, in us the readers. Because at its end the Life of Pi doesn't give us an account of a boy's amazing journey or his faith but it asks us a simple question: What do you believe in?
It begins with a choice about which version of truth in the story is more palatable to you. Then it makes you agonise about your decision as you run through the entire story, armed with the revelations at the end. If you're a person like myself, often pondering such matters, it becomes a loop of cinema where when reversed through each incident, character and speech leap off the film and look directly at you. Each in turn asks you what you believe in.
It's the meta-story that has got me thinking about this book long after the details of Pi's journey have been buffered out of my mind. The big choice it presents leads to much thinking about why you make the choices you make and more importantly perhaps, what are the consequences of such choices.