2001, Books, Fiction

Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel

This review contains major SPOILERS.

Hype is a dangerous thing. I heard a lot about this book, all positive, and I heard it for what felt like years. In addition to the hype, I had some aspects of the plot spoiled for me by the existence of the movie. So, basically, I waited way too long to read this novel. That’s at least one of the reasons I didn’t like it.

Martel is a good writer in many ways. He has a knack for creating and extending tension and some of the moments on the lifeboat are handled way better than I wanted them to be. There are moments that are handled really, really well – I just wish the story and its moral were better.

This is where the SPOILERS begin, in case you haven’t been warned enough.

The story, which is already extremely fantastical, gets more and more absurd as it goes on. It reminds me a bit of Robinson Crusoe in the way Pi has access to everything he needs to survive. The longer Pi and Richard Parker survive, the more ridiculous everything is. Then, when Pi meets the blind man, things get too much for me. At this point, I thought Pi had to be delirious. But no, the stakes of ridiculousness are upped even further, with the carnivorous algae island.

The carnivorous algae island reminds me of those old 18th and 19th century adventure stories and novels where a European finds a fantastical land like which nobody has ever seen before. I feel like this is a bit of a nod to those stories, but it’s not one I appreciate. (Let’s also remember that some of those stories were passed off as fact, even though they were always fiction.)

At this point, I strongly believed the moral to be one about how we cannot fully understand the wonders of god’s creation – given the religious nature of the first part of the book – and I thought I was going to have to write a review about how, because I’m agnostic, I cannot accept this moral. Fortunately – unfortunately? – the twist comes instead.

I suspect that the twist is why everyone loves this book. Without the twist, it would be some hokey new age, “all religions are equally special and valid” spiritual bullshit and, though some people would eat that up, not as many people as loved this book would have loved it. It is the twist that saves the story for most people, I imagine.

It did not do so for me, it just changed the nature of the problem.

The problem, as I see it, is that Martel is saying that it is better to tell a better story than a truthful one, both for our own sanity and for others. I disagree on both counts.

Yes, we all tell ourselves versions of the truth that are not necessarily accurate. And, yes, sometimes we need to hide the truth for a time in order to heal. But Martel seems to be saying it’s better to re-imagine tragedy as fantasy. This is unhealthy and dangerous. At some point, we need to confront the tragedies of our lives and come to terms with them.

Also, in this day and age of alternative facts, I struggle with the idea that the facts and a fantastical story are equally valid and equally acceptable because, as Pi puts it, they are equally unfalsifiable. Not only is that not true – it’s possible to prove Pi’s story false with effort – it’s dangerous and problematic, and especially concerning given the number of people who are currently maintaining that their interpretation of reality is equally true as reality. I have a huge problem with that.

But these concerns aside, Martel wrote a page turner and it’s clear to me he is a skilled story teller. I hope the next time I read one of his novels, it’s a better story.


PS Holy cultural appropriation batman. Martel is not the ethnicity of his main character. Clearly he should not have written this novel.

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