I can’t believe I’m actually saying this… The movie was better than the book. Now, usually when I say that, it’s because the movie has taken a very bizarre piece of writing and turned it into something palatable. This time is no different. I would watch the movie again. I still haven’t decided whether I would read this book again.
I’ve been thinking over my feelings about this book for a while, and it’s still hard for me to understand why it makes me as uncomfortable as it does. So much of it was good. Some of it was even great. So why did it leave me feeling confused, discouraged, and strangely sullied? Life of Pi is critically acclaimed, award winning, and New York Times best-selling. All of this should have warned me. Usually ‘critically-acclaimed’ is code for ‘overrated’.
The ‘back-of-the-book’ description explains it best.
Pi Patel, a God-loving boy and the son of a zookeeper, has a fervent love of stories and practices not only his native Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam. When Pi is sixteen, his family and their zoo animals emigrate from Indie to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship. Alas, the ship sinks – and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi. Can Pi and the tiger find their way to land? Can Pi’s fear, knowledge, and cunning keep him alive until they do.
The survival story itself was very good, if you like that kind of thing. I do. It is all written in narrative, as Pi telling the story to a novelist researching for a new story. I can see how some people might feel that it drags on, and if you’re not into ‘survival on the high seas’ type stories, this is probably not the booksfor you. But that wasn’t what bothered me.
I don’t know why I didn’t see it coming, but what finally got to me was the quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo. In the movie (which I watched first, incidentally) it was more understated. For once I’m thankful for Hollywood’s ten-foot-pole policy when it comes to matters of faith. Pi’s bizarre worldview is such a strange mixture of innocence, naiveté, and humanism that I choked on it pretty quickly. But I kept on reading, telling myself that by the time he was stranded in the lifeboat, there wouldn’t be much time for that stuff. I was wrong.
This book has a bit of a twist at the end (also at the end of the movie), that I won’t spoil, but it makes the entire book a matter of interpretation. The entire book revolves around the question, “What do you choose to believe?” I think because of that, different people will come away with different interpretations and different impressions. It wouldn’t have hit me so badly if it wasn’t for one line at the very end, comparing the truth you choose to believe with God. Or quoted verbatim, “And so it goes with God.”
Some people came away with an optimistic view, saying it shows that people want to believe in light and good and beauty, even if it requires a leap of faith. “And so it goes with God.” We believe in God because He is light and good and beauty.
Unfortunately, I came away with a different message. The message I saw was that we should choose “the better story” whether it is truth or not, and that God is just “the better story.” Call me old-fashioned or prudish, but I’d rather have the true truth. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories and fables and allegories, but I don’t choose to believe them as truth. I would rather not “exchange the truth of God for the lie.” (Rom. 1:25.)
But which way you see it, will depend on how you answer the pivotal question at the end of the book. I can only explain how my answer affected the way the story left me. And afterward, I thought very hard about it and I realized that if you came to a different answer than I did, “And so it goes with God,” could have a much different – better – meaning. It wasn’t even the particular answer I came to that bothered me, but the comparison of God to a variable truth. I suppose, coming from a character that is a Catholic-Muslim-Hindu, I should have expected trumped-up views of God. But it still bothered me.
Aside from all that, also be warned that it is extremely violent and gory toward the end. Some very ugly parts of humanity are dealt with and described in great detail. It could definitely be disturbing for some readers.
So I don’t sound only negative, many parts of the books were quite enjoyable. Pi’s view of zoos was detailed, authoritative, and refreshing. Let’s put it this way, he most certainly does NOT think all animals are better off left in the wild, or that zoos are cruel constructs of a cruel society. Pi is actually a very sweet, innocent, gentle-hearted character, and his narrative voice is very comfortable reading – like listening to an old friend telling you a story. There was even a quote that made me laugh out loud.
I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he’s not careful.
I will certainly watch the movie again. And I may even read the book again when I’m older and hopefully wiser, to reevaluate my impressions about it. What about you? Have you read it? What was your answer at the end?