Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up.
At such moments I tried to elevate myself. I would touch the turban I had made with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S HAT!"
I would pat my pants and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S ATTIRE!"
I would point to Richard Parker and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S CAT!"
I would point to the lifeboat and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S ARK!"
I would spread my hands wide and say aloud, "THESE ARE GOD'S WIDE ACRES!"
I would point at the sky and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S EAR!"
And in this way I would remind myself of creation and of my place in it.
But God's hat was always unraveling. God's pants were falling apart. God's cat was a constant danger. God's ark was a jail. God's wide acres were slowly killing me. God's ear didn't seem to be listening.
Here is one of those books I had sort of resisted reading just because they're so popular. I'm more cynical than I care to admit, I suppose, and I usually assume the worst about super-popular things simply because they're so popular, especially when there is a vocal minority who say that thing is awful (and isn't there always?). But I won this copy from Amanda (thanks Amanda!) who didn't care for the book, and so I decided to give it a chance. As is usually the case, I found that neither is the book as awesome as its supporters would say, but neither is it horrible. Life of Pi is a good book with some substantial flaws.
On one hand, it's a survival story that makes Hatchet look like a camping trip. Briefly (because I know you know about it), it's about young Pi Patel, who is on the way to Canada from India with his zookeeping family and a bunch of animals when the boat sinks, leaving him, a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker in a lifeboat together. The zebra, orangutan, and hyena are quickly dispatched but Pi spends months at sea trying to train Richard Parker to respect him as the alpha male on the boat and ensure the survival of them both.
This section of the book is really quite gripping; it's no small task to make being stuck in a lifeboat for months a good tale, tiger or no tiger. The thing about being stuck at sea is that very little happens. Martel does a great job of getting us to really inhabit Patel's skin, dealing with the incredible burden of survival while struggling with the notion that, in all likelihood, none of his family survived.
Unfortunately, I think this is one of the rare species of book that works better as an adventurous yarn than a spiritual statement. The problem is that the parts of the book that speak to Pi's spirituality are the thinnest parts of the book. Martel paints him as a lover of God who, back home in India, tries to become simultaneously a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. This leads to some pretty out-of-place comedy when his three spiritual teachers meet and realize what's been going on, like in a sitcom when the main character's three girlfriends accidentally end up in the same place at the same time.
But the worst part is the end--and here I'll add the SPOILER ALERT for those who haven't read it--which disappointed me, though Jim loved it. In fact, he loved exactly what I disliked about it: in the book's final chapters, Pi is pressed by interrogators from the shipping company to tell what "really happened." Pi changes his story to one where he and his mother were trapped in the lifeboat with a murderous Frenchman and others. The interrogators quickly discover that all the characters in this second story correspond with the animals from the first (and Pi with Richard Parker, which is admittedly a nice touch), and ask Pi why he lied. Pi's excuse is that the first story is better, and yet retains the truth of the second. The idea here is that Pi's story is like the three different stories of God in the three religions he follows; none are quite truthful but they all represent the fundamental truth of God's benevolence.
I have several issues with this. The first is that, really, is this much better than the old film trope where the character wakes up to find out it was all a dream? Honestly, I think I'm right to feel a little cheated. Secondly, the second story that Pi tells is pretty horrifying, and would have made a good story in his own right. I don't think the interrogators' agreement that the first story is "better" makes sense. Better how? And why? Because it has animals?
Thirdly, there is nothing particularly reflective about this kind of spirituality. I run the risk of offending here, so I'll tread lightly. In her post, Amanda remarks that she didn't like what Pi has to say about agnostics. I honestly don't recall what Pi says about them, so I reserve judgement--but isn't what Pi is espousing to us a sort of agnosticism? The assertion that we understand fundamental truths about God through a number of colorful stories leaves what we know, by nature, very vague. Nor does it address the parts of those religions which directly contradict each other (how, for instance, do we reconcile a monotheistic and a polytheistic religion?). This is exactly the reason that Pi's words about God come across so thin--they are generally lacking in substance. One might respond that one thing we learn about God is He is (They are?) fundamentally mysterious, yet there is nothing mysterious about the supposed "true" story about Pi's journey. We are supposed to accept that the story with the tiger is better, because it is more whimsical perhaps, and less cruel, but I think that perhaps this raises parallels that Martel does not want to raise.
I feel as if I am in the minority in this, when you average in Carlton and Brent, so I'd love to hear your thoughts. However, I will restate that I did like the book, though I feel like this flaw prevented me from really thinking highly of it.