Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Life of Pi

Author: Yann Martel
Edition: eBook-Fresno County Library
Read: January 2012
342 pages
Rated: 3.5 out of 5

Indian family has a zoo in a part of India which was occupied by the French. As the economy and Indian politics changes, the family is forced to sell the zoo and its animals. They decide to migrate to Toranto-some of the animals are also sold to the Toranto zoo. The family accompanies  the animals on the ship Tsimtsum. A few days out, the ship sinks. Pi is saved, along with a a zebra, orangutang, a hyena, and a tiger—Richard Parker. The story tells of his adventures with the animals and how Pi survived.

Spoil is at the end.


Story starts from the perspective of an author. He relates how he was trying to write one story, but the story did not come together. As he was wandering about wondering what he would do, he comes across a person who knows another person who has a story which will make you believe in God. That is the story of Pi.

The story goes from the author meeting with Pi to Pi's story and back. At first the author gets interested in Pi's story. Then he starts to get interested in Pi. At one place, even though he is meeting in Pi's home, he belated becomes aware that Pi has a wife, then a family. He comments that “They were there all along, but I hadn't seen them because I wasn't looking for them.”  (103) So true—unless you want to see something, you usually do not see the elephant in the room.

In chapter 4, Martel talks about zoos. He says that an animal is very territorial. So the word freedom has no meaning to the animal. So being in a zoo, the animal feels no more restrictions than in the wild. How true is this? So Martel makes his pitch for good zoos. He points out that zoo animals do not escape to somewhere, but from something(54).

But then he goes on and compares the idea of freedom for humans. Do we really relish freedom? Do we roam around? Or do we keep to our territories—our homes for instance? Is this the reason why people like Chris McCandless (Into the Wild), Aron Ralston (Between A Rock and A Hard Place), Evert Ruess and Edward Abbey seem foreign to us? I like backpacking, but this is under a very controlled and prepared experience.

He then goes on and says that both zoos and religion share a common popular opinion—they are no longer in people's good opinion.(32) Pi's father is a symbol of this modern opinion. Pi sees the modern India as rich, modern and as secular as ice cream (86)—whatever that may be.

Pi's real name, Piscine, sound like the English word Piss, even though he was named after an elegant french swimming pool. Consequently, Pi gets ridiculed at school. When he changes schools, he decides to take the initiative—changes his name to Pi. When teachers ask what his name is, he says Pi and writes it on the board very forcefully. It is interesting how a math symbol brings peace and respite to him (37)

One of the themes of this book is how forceful can a person be? Is it better to be assertive? When Pi changes his name, he makes the name know in class, by not answering the question, “What is your name?”, but by marching to the blackboard and writing it down, saying it, giving the math symbol, the value and then getting reprimanded, not once, but eight times that day. But after that, there was no question of what his name was. Also as he talks about how relationships with zoo animals are established.  Then when he establishes his relationship with Richard Parker, he establishes himself as the alpha animal. This is pointed out that hostile and aggressive behavior on the part of animals—and I suspect humans is due to social insecurity. (59).

Obviously, when a person is shipwrecked, another theme will be survival. Since he is shipwrecked with several beasts, he at first is concerned with the animals. But as he realizes that his own survival is at stake, he loses empathy with them and focuses on his own. (144). This is probably true all the way around. It is the exceptional person who is concerned about others when they are suffering. He also loses his sense of time—he credits this as to why he survived. (218)

And it is this suffering which occupies Pi's mind, but not a lot of the book. He does not go over how he was raged with thirst or always hungry—he does talk about it, but does not incessantly dwell on it. He does comment how various Hindu gods suffered and are memorialized for it. He comments that his suffering is made in a grand setting(203), but there was no audience for it. Suffering is personnel—we can be moved by others suffering, but it is hard to take on another's suffering He feels his suffering does matter, even if it is personal.

Later on Martel notes that Pi realizes how hopeless his situation is. He is on a 26 foot boat with a Bengal tiger. Eventually the tiger will grow hungry and Pi will be the only source of food. As Pi realizes this, he loses hope. But instead of reacting with desperation, despair and depression, it gives him a new sense of energy. He thinks that he will not survive, so it frees him to think clearer and take measures which ultimately saves him. (160)

Ultimately, Pi realizes that he will die. He ponders that to die suddenly is terrible, but swift. But to die gradually with time to spare, you see what you are losing—the happiness you have had and would have had. (174) Do we see this as we live out our lives? Do we ponder where we are going? Or do we become numb and only live for now? Or do we cower in fear? He talks about fear and its effects (187) The mind will dismiss its greatest strengths—hope and trust (187), reason is too weak to stand. Where do you go for support and calmness?

Martel notes that a person can get used to anything, even killing(212). Consequently, one should never look at an act in isolation, but understand what came  previous to it.

There comes a place towards the end of his voyage where he encounters a mysterious, floating island. The island seems to be benign, but in reality has a dangerous element. Martel's description reminds me of a heinous version of CS Lewis' floating island. The description of an ungrounded island where there the plants are able to  extract the saltwater from the ocean through the plants. Martel's version has potentially dangerous side effect, instead of the Lewis version of an early Eden.

Martel writes an entertaining tale. It is a tale  which talks a lot of religion and how Pi wants to find a way to love God (89). First, Pi talks with an atheist—one of his teachers. Pi finds that the atheist is strong, loving and brave, but his outlook is rather bleak (37)  Pi respects this atheist, but is afraid that God will be destroyed by this man's words. Pi states, it is a terrible disease if it can kill God in a man. While a juvenile way to state it, it is a good way to say it. Pi does not want to lose his love for God. Is Pi's concern why we approach atheists with fear and belligerence? We are afraid the atheist will destroy the God living within us?

But it is also an interesting expression of God—living in us. I do not know about other religions, such as Hindu, if they have that thought. But Christianity does. He also says that faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, trust.

Martel does not have a place for agnostic thought. He says that doubt is ok for awhile, but not as a lifeline position. I take it that it is like voting. It is ok at the beginning of a presidential campaign to not know whom you are going to vote for, but if you still have that position after election day, you wasted the opportunity. The presidential analogy is my thought. See the quote below on transportation. But he does understand that reason can carry you only so far (120). There are limits to reason and there are some questions which get asked, but which never be answered. I think Martel feels that unless you understand this and make a good guess, you will always be on the fence. So eventually you need to move beyond fence sitting and plant yourself in a yard.

Chapter 16 opens with, we are all born Catholics—in limbo, without religion until some figure introduces us to God. This is an interesting statement. First, since he is using Catholics with a capital C, I assume he means the Catholic Church, not the holding things in common word. Does he mean that Catholics do not know their God or that they are godless? What do people become once they have found their god? He also does go on and say that he had been a Hindu all of his life (67) He does give an explanation of Hinduism---it is like a bank account where you are constantly depositing/withdrawing based upon your actions.

While he considers himself a Christian, Muslim, and Hindu, Pi sees problems in each. Such as he places in the mouth of his Hindu teacher, The proof of how bad Islam is, is how uncivilized Muslims are. (88) There is the obvious thought that Muslims generally are viewed as terrorists, fanatics. We know that is not altogether true. But how they have conquered their set of the world, it is not always by showing the light, but by force.

But the other thought which comes from that statement is the need for those who follow truth to act with both Truth and Grace. Martel sees the effect of forcing all to observe proper relations with God. That it leads to corruption of a system and obedience being the primary force, not the relationship with God. Martel asks, is this because God is weak and helpless? (91-see quote below).

Along with Martel's thoughts on our relation with God, he talks about the beauty of the gardens and flowers.(98) It raised the question, at least in my mind about beauty and its place in relationship with God. Should we worship God in beautiful situations or are they distractions? Is it better to worship in a sterile, aesthetic environment? After thinking about it, this is a false dichotomy. All things should lead us to God. Beauty can be a sign pointer, but it can be a distraction. Beauty is not to be worshiped.


Do I believe in God? Which story do I believe? In some ways, the question which Yann Martel asks is how to evaluate the book. Does the book bring you closer to God? Is the story believable?

As for the first question, I do not think so. It seems more fictional than factual-by this, I mean the fiction really does not give that much insight into the operation of God. Martel asks a lot of questions, but has more of a universal, mish-mash of thinking towards who God is and how people should respond to God's love.

It is an interesting question about which story to believe. How do you form belief when there is no solid basis for belief. How do you know which story is right when there were no observers? Is either of the stories correct? Martel only raises the question, does not answer it, or even give clues.

Because of this, we are left with a book which raises good questions, tells a good story, in mostly a pretty good way, but not really any better than a dozen other modern books.

Notes from my book group:
I was not able to attend the meeting where this book was discussed. But it sounded like much of the group thought it was a good book.

New Words or people:
  • Luria, Isaac (14)-Pi's religious studies is in the cosmogony of this person
  • Cosmogony (14)- a theory or story of the origin and development of the universe, the solar system, or the earth-moon system.
  • Beebe(14)-Study of sloth's
  • Bullock(15)-Study sloths and decaying branches.
  • Tirler (15)-study of sloths
  • Thar Desert (34) region of rolling sand hills located partly in Rajasthan state, northwestern India
  • Apothecary (38)- one who prepares and sells drugs or compounds for medicinal purposes
  • Hediger (60)-place of intimidation  in the social order of animals.
  • Pandit (88)
  • Wallah (89)
  • R.K. Narayan (94)
  • Sri Ramakrishna (96)
  • Morarji Desal (101)
  • zoomorphism (107) 1. the conception or representation of deities in the form of animals 2. the use of animal forms or symbols in art, literature, etc
  • dyspeptic (123) Of or having indigestion or consequent irritability or depression.
  • durian (146)
  • chandlers (166)
  • Diwali (168)
  • masala dosai (168)
  • oothappam (168)
  • dorados (179)
  • prusten (189)
  • oestrous (189)
  • lassi (247)
  • gaff (298)
  • meekrats (300)

Good Quotes:
  • Those we meet can changes us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same after wards, even unto our names. (33)
  • There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience (41). (This is Martel's statement of rationalism and scientific thought.)
  • Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. (42)
  • To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. (42)
  • All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel off the ability to adapt. (55)
  • Animals that escape go from the known into the unknown—and if there is one thing an animal hates above all else, it is the unknown. (55)
  • There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. (91)
  • people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. (91)
  • Religion is about our dignity, not our depravity. (92)
  • Long term, bad politics is bad for business. (102)
  • Why can't reason give greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in an answer? (120)
  • When your own life is threatened, your sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival. (144)
  • To be drunk on alcohol is disgraceful, but to be drunk on water is noble and ecstatic. (169)
  • I must say a word about fear. It is life's only opponent. (187)
  • Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness. (204)
  • Time is an illusion that only makes us pant. (218)
  • Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love. (241)
  • At moments of wonder, it is easy to avoid small thinking, to entertain thoughts that span the universe, that capture both thunder and tinkle, thick and thin, the near and the far. (272)
  • It's important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. (317)



But the story has a third part where representatives of the ship talk with Pi after his survival. They tell a different story—one where a cook, Pi's mother, a sailor and Pi survive the shipwreck in a lifeboat. The question which Pi asks the representatives is, which story do you prefer?