Piscine Molitor Patel’s unfortunate name leads to him being called “Pissing Patel” in school, until he definitively changes his name to “Pi” and becomes the protagonist of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi. This is one of my favorite books of all time, and should be read by everyone before going to college. There’s also a really fabulous illustrated version, and even just image searching the title will pull up a plethora of really beautiful renderings.
Pi is a particular individual. He was born Hindi, but chooses to also worship Islam and Christianity, and his family owns a zoo in India. But when they decide to move to Canada, their ship sinks, stranding Pi on a small lifeboat with a hyena, an injured zebra, an orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Soon it is only Richard Parker and Pi left on the raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and they forge an uneasy truce—Pi feeds Richard Parker the fish he catches and Richard Parker doesn’t eat him. They fight through illness, weather storms, meet another marooned man and kill him, venture onto an island that turns out to actually be carnivorous, and 227 days later wash up on shore in Mexico, alive.
In the entirety of the English literary canon, Pi might be one of the most interesting characters. He explains his tri-fold faith by the fact “that Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.” This sets the tone for his experiences—they are all tempered by acceptance of the unbelievable. Recently orphaned and trapped in close quarters with an adult tiger, Pi finds miracles and the will to survive.
Of course he despairs and curses the sky and all that sort of stuff, but this isn’t Atonement or something like that. Life of Pi is a hilarious novel with plenty of sly asides that is plenty uplifting, not to mention a really absorbing read. Pi himself is courageous and humble and entertaining as heck. He has the most curious observations, such as that the beach he washes up on is like “God’s cheek” and when questioned about his miraculous journey and a man says that he believes what he sees, Pi innocently remarks “So did Columbus. What do you do when you’re in the dark?” But my favorite part of the book might be the twist at the ending (no, he wasn’t dreaming) that really thumps you on the head, in a good way.
I don’t mean to make it sound like this is some sort of religious tome—it’s an adventure/quest-type novel that happens to have a lot to do with belief and disbelief. This book is flawlessly written and incredibly deep. Pi’s simple philosophy of acceptance teaches a lot about faith, about the nature of humanity, about life and death. I read it in high school as an assignment for English class, so I can personally testify to the rich fodder for analysis if that’s the way you roll. But whatever your literary bent, this is a book that will simultaneously calm your heart and make that thing happen like in the Katy Perry video for “Firework.”
“Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.”
Read it, it’s a beautiful piece of fiction.