This book was not what I expected it to be. I’d heard about it here and there, and the plot synopsis while simple, was intriguing enough to make me pick it up. It’s about an Indian boy who finds himself lost at sea, adrift in a rowboat with a 450 pound tiger as his only shipmate. I also knew that it deal with issues of religion and spirituality. I was expecting an allegorical tale, probably peppered with a fair amount of magical realism. I’m not sure why exactly, but I had it in my head that the tiger and the boy would talk and that the carnivorous castaway would impart some spiritual wisdom on the protagonist while they were at sea. Something like the The Old Man and The Sea meets Ishmael perhaps. That will teach me to go into a novel with expectations.
Yann Martel plays it straight. He gives us a few opening scenes with Piscine Patel growing up at his family’s zoo in India. Pi, as he prefers to be called, is a devout Hindu. He is also a devout Muslim. And a devout Christian. Everyone seems to have a problem with his polyrelgiosity except for the boy himself, who sees nothing contradictory in his faiths. After a few chapters of Pi’s theological musings, the story gets moving with his family and all the animals from their zoo setting forth on a sea voyage to Canada. The ship goes down, and Pi finds himself thrown in a life raft with a giant tiger named Richard Parker. The bulk of the book, then, is Pi learning to survive on the open water with a ferocious beast. The tiger does not impart any wisdom, and the journey is a straight adventure story lacking any overt weirdness (until a possibly hallucinated sequence near the end).
Indeed, the novel is chiefly concerned with the minutiae of survival. Martel goes into painstaking detail about the life boat and the supplies, and the steps that Pi takes to stay alive. The result is something very much like the Old Man in the Sea, but lacking much of it’s depth. For me, there was too much emphasis place on the “boy’s own adventure story” and not enough placed on character development. The text goes back to the well of survival account specificities again and again. If you have a particular affinity for the word gunnel, or read disaster stories religiously you will be drawn in more than I was.
It’s hard to get too angry with the novel simply for not being what I thought it was going to be and I have made a good-faith attempt to judge it on it’s own merits. I still didn’t like it. Not that the prose was lacking, but the overall plot was too intensely focused on the blow-by-blow of fishing, rationing, and harvesting water. Richard Parker, the feline companion, functions both as an additional obstacle for Pi to deal with and a symbol of everything he left behind. I like the fact that Pi decides he needs to keep Richard Parker alive despite the danger he presents. It’s a hint of the deeper themes that the novel mostly chooses to ignore.
Then, at the end of the novel, after a surreal trip to a mysterious living island (probably hallucinated) Pi comes ashore in Mexico and Richard Parker escapes into the wilderness. While Pi answers the questions of some investigators, Martell tries to pull a switch and intimates that the entire thing was a fabrication created by Pi to deal with the tragedy of losing his family at sea. It happens in just the last few pages and solidly derails the work. What is supposed to be an “Aha!” moment just feels flat. The author leaves it up to you take away the version of the story that you like best, but it just feels like a cop-out. Rather than adding depth to the preceding chapters, it feels like the author is trying to be deeper than the novel indicates. All in all, the novel wasn’t terrible, but it was a disappointment.
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