There are many ways to look at Life of Pi. The novel can be read as a magical realist fable, as a high concept adventure story, or as an allegory about faith, nature and of storytelling itself.
It begins with an unnamed writer seeking a story to tell. When he is directed to Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi, Pi recounts to the great adventure of his life. We learn that Pi was born in Pondicherry, India, to the owners of a small zoo. He is an unusual boy, shortening his name to a mathematic symbol to avoid teasing from his schoolmates and practising three religions simultaneously in order to bring him closer to God.
When financial crisis strikes, Pi’s family – along with all of their animals – are forced to up sticks to the United States, travelling across the Pacific Ocean in their very own Noah’s Ark. Under mysterious circumstances, the ship sinks, leaving Pi as the only human survivor. But he is not alone. Accompanying him on his lifeboat are a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The animals quickly attack and devour each other until only Pi and Richard Parker remain. This is the image most are familiar with, whether from the book’s cover or the luminous posters for the Ang Lee film adaptation – the boy, the boat and the tiger.
Both book and film are utterly magical, the latter perhaps more so purely by virtue of its staggering imagery. But it is the story that really counts, and it is a story special not simply for its action (which is frequently edge-of-your-seat) but for its symbolic resonance.
The longer Pi and Richard Parker spend adrift at sea, the less dangerous and more imperative they become to one another. As weeks and months of isolation pass, so their adventures become more surreal, and less credible. Can they be true? What does it even mean for something to be true? Does it simply have to be believed? The answers may be left up to you, but the questions are riveting.
Life of Pi is the perfect parable for the animalistic nature of human beings, for the nebulousness of truth and for the transformative power of belief. It is, in short, not just about Pi’s life, but simply Life.
Life of Pi is available now from Canongate Books.
Words: Rachel Groocock