Yes, I know I’m behind. The book came out in 2002, and won that year’s Man Booker Prize.
Okay. Let’s try this again (editing). “Pi” is short for Piscine Molitor Patel. Piscine Molitor is the name of a swimming pool in Paris that Pi’s uncle is crazy about.
At the time of the story, Pi is 16. He lives in Pondicherry, India, where his father owns the local zoo. His father becomes disenchanted with the political climate in India, and decides to immigrate with the family to Canada. Specifically, to Winnipeg. He sells all the animals he can, except for a few of the more exotic ones he takes with him to sell in either Canada or the U.S., where he can get a better price.
The family sets off in a Japanese cargo ship. Shortly after leaving Manila, there is an explosion onboard (possibly a boiler), and the ship sinks. Pi is the only human survivor (or is he?) He finds himself in a lifeboat with a zebra who has broken its leg in the fall to the lifeboat, an orangutan, and a hyena. In the first few minutes, Pi sees a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker swimming toward the boat, and is desperate to save it. He throws it a life ring, which the tiger grabs onto, and Pi begins pulling the rope attached to the ring toward the boat. As the tiger gets near, Pi suddenly comes to his senses and says “What am I doing? I must be crazy”, and starts trying to beat the tiger off with an oar, to no avail. Richard Parker climbs aboard.
Pi is on the lifeboat for 227 days, along with Richard Parker. (The zebra, the orangutan, and the hyena don’t make it.)
At last, they land in Mexico. Representatives from Japan come to question Pi in the hospital, in an attempt to understand why the ship sank. Pi tells them his story. They say they don’t believe him. He says, “Oh, you don’t like this story? You don’t think it’s true? Well, what is truth? Reality is always altered by our perception of it. So I’ll tell you another story, one you’ll maybe like better.”
When he tells the alternate story, suddenly you question everything you read before. I absolutely did not see this coming. It’s a brilliant book, completely brilliant.
The posters I saw when the movie came out made it look like a Disney movie. Then Ang Lee won the best director Oscar for the movie, and I said Hmmm. Ang Lee and Disney don’t go together in the same sentence. There must be more to this movie/book than meets the eye.
The Man Booker website describes it as a “fantasy/adventure”. Well, not really. It’s a parable. It’s “about” the nature of reality, how we perceive it, and how the human mind copes with unimaginable stress and loss. Which sometimes includes coming unhinged.
Early on in the book, I was somewhat put off by its religious elements. Pi is a very spiritual boy. Raised as a Hindu, he elects to be baptized in the Catholic Church as well as study at a mosque. In a memorable encounter between Pi, his parents, his priest, his Imam, and his Hindu teacher, they are all fighting about who he is. The priest says, “He’s a Christian!” The Imam says “No way! He is a good Muslim boy!” The Hindu teacher says “You are a Hindu! You must reject these outside religions which have nothing to do with you!”
Pi says…haven’t you all told me that all religions are true? I just want to love God. And even that aspect of the book plays a role in the outcome. It has jumped to the top of the list of my all-time favorite books.