I’ve heard good things about this book for ages, ever since it won the Booker Prize back in 2002, but for some reason I always resisted reading it. Perhaps it’s because I tend to prefer books that stay quite close to reality, and the premise of this one – a 16-year-old boy called Pi travels the Pacific in a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger – sounded like the exact opposite. It’s a tall tale, almost deliberately unrealistic. Martel seems to take the absurdity of the premise as a challenge – to make the reader believe it anyway.
And the amazing thing is that he mostly succeeds. There’s quite a long lead-in before we get to the boat part, and I think that helps. It doesn’t really help us get to know Pi – he’s a child, and apart from showing curiosity about various world religions he doesn’t actually do much. As with many children, things just happen to him, and these things are dependent more on the adults around him than on his own will.
What the introductory part does instead is to lay some of the groundwork for what happens later. Pi’s father is a zookeeper in southern India, and we learn much about animals’ territorial natures, their habits, their fears, their social hierarchies, and about lion-taming. These are the things Pi will later put into practice when his family is moving to Canada and the boat sinks, leaving him adrift with an assortment of animals that were being transported from their zoo to North American ones. When he does, we recognise them and the straight, scientific way in which they were described appears to lend them some credibility.
In an “Author’s Note” at the beginning, Martel describes a trip to India in which he encounters an old man who promises “I have a story that will make you believe in God” and then proceeds to tell him the story which Martel turns into this book. Religion is clearly a theme throughout the book – or perhaps more accurately, faith, since organised religions are portrayed as largely missing the point. Pi practises Christianity, Islam and Hinduism simultaneously, and when he is confronted by the priest, imam and pandit, they argue amongst themselves while the boy Pi quotes Gandhi as saying “All religions are true”, adding “I just want to love God”.
The story doesn’t really make you believe in God, though. An atheist or agnostic could quite easily attribute Pi’s survival to human qualities of intelligence and ingenuity, without any divine intervention. The key comes towards the end, when Pi is interviewed by people who refuse to believe his story about being trapped in a boat for months with a tiger. In response to their scepticism, he tells an alternative, much bleaker and more believable version in which all the animals and bizarre events are absent and he is on a boat with people who argue, kill each other and eat each other’s flesh.
There are certain parallels in the events in the two stories, so that you can think that perhaps Pi has created the animal version to shield him from the horror of the real one. But then Pi poses the question: “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” His listeners are forced to admit that the story with the animals is better, to which he replies “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
The phrase “better story” echoes a passage much earlier in the book where Pi is talking about a dying agnostic, staying “beholden to dry, yeastless factuality” to the very end, who “might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying ‘Possibly a failing oxygenation of the brain’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.” The conclusion appears to be that, since we have no real way of knowing how the universe was created, we might as well believe the version with God since, like the version with animals, it is the better story. It’s an interesting idea but not really something to “make you believe in God.”
In fact, the further away I get from this novel, the more I feel myself reverting to my earlier scepticism. The artfulness of the storytelling fades, and only the absurd outlines remain. I am gradually returning to the state I was in from 2002 to 2008, knowing vaguely about a story with a boy and a tiger and thinking it all sounded a bit silly.
But in that brief time when I was actually reading the book, I have to say that I really enjoyed it. I was caught up in the story, I was bowled over by the sheer audacity of the plot, and the ‘God’ aspects seemed much stronger than they appear in retrospect. I even read large chunks of the book a second time, although that was largely because I was trapped in U.S. immigration at JFK airport for two and a half hours with nothing else to read. But I do remember being very enthusiastic about the book, so much so that the two and a half hours passed quickly. I’d definitely recommend it. I might even reread it again myself one day, although hopefully in happier circumstances.