Going into a religious allegory like Life of Pi, you expect an abundance of meerkats, and Life of Pi, sadly, has only a moderate amount of meerkats.
Yann Martel’s award-winning novel tells the story of Pi Patel, a religion-preoccupied Indian boy who obsessively studies and successively converts to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, saying that he “just wants to love God,” much to the chagrin of the Atheist father who named him after a swimming pool (Pi being short for “Piscine Molitor,” after a particularly fine pool in France). Young Piscine, who shortens his name to Pi in tribute to his favorite band, A Perfect Circle (not really), and his childhood obsession with religion, is the first of the three-part novel, the second part being Pi’s journey across the ocean stuck in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, after the container ship transporting his family’s zoo across the ocean goes down in a storm (a zoo on a boat, isn’t that wacky?!). The third part is Pi’s subsequent retelling of this story to disbelieving shipping agents. “Which story do you prefer?” he asks.
The journey, then, becomes an allegory for mankind’s incomplete attempt to explain their relationship to God through religion. Whoa…
Tigers = God, get it? Don’t worry, you will, because it’s all a little facile and didactic. Themes will be introduced, re-introduced, and then overtly explained with big Looney Tunes acme signs, just in case. All the characters even have cutesy names, a spoonful of quirk to help the medicine go down (besides the titular Pi-because-of-a-swimming pool, there’s also the tiger named Richard Parker, the result of a clerical error). And with its unitarianish, pan-theistic spiritualism, adorable third-world immigrant boy narrator, and general, faux-exotic feel-good liberalism, it’s like catnip for every baby boomer in Yoga class, the perfect complement to the soccer-mom regimen of acupuncture, Christmas shopping, and Kabbalah. Awards? Count on it.
And you know what? I love it. It’s a great f*cking book. You throw out every allegorical religious element and you’ve still got a kid on a lifeboat with a hyena, a tiger, and an orangutan, told in a way that actually makes it believable. It’s a hell of a premise, and don’t even get me started on the edible carnivorous island covered in meerkats. Seriously, give me a meerkat island over a melancholic semi-autobiographical tale of a romantic bohemian trying to find his place in an alienating world any day. It helps that even though the story is limousine-liberal crack and probably gives Aaron Sorkin a big boner, in Martel’s hands, it doesn’t feel like bullshit. It feels like he was genuinely trying to answer some questions for himself and not just trying to get on Oprah’s book club. A little hokey, sure, but trying to find your own way to love God, it isn’t the worst theme in the world.