After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The crew of the surviving vessel consists of a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger and Pi - a 16-year-old Indian boy. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary pieces of literary fiction of recent years. Yann Martel's "Life of Pi" is a transformative novel, a dazzling work of imagination that will delight and astound readers in equal measure. It is a triumph of storytelling and a tale that will, as one character puts it, make you believe in God.
This review is going to be impossible to write without it containing spoilers, so you are warned.
"So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or without the animals?"
That question is what the book is about. It is a story about how we tell stories about our lives giving them order and meaning and the greatest story, Yann Martel maintains, is that of religion: “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material -- any greater pattern of meaning.”
The book begins with the boy Pi lapping up the stories of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism and adopting all three religions much to the shock of his religious teachers when they meet together with him. It then moves to the tale of Pi's survival on the lifeboat with a tiger and other animals for company. This story although maybe somewhat far-fetched is nevertheless logical, until Pi arrives on an island, where things just get weird.
In the last tenth of the book, Pi tells a different story, the alternative story without animals and more horrific, and asks his listeners, two Japanese accident investigators, the question above. They, like most readers I suspect, prefer the story with animals.
Ok, so what did I make of this book that everyone seems to claim to be magic realism? Well if I use the definition giving to the right of this post, I don't think it is magic realism. It is about storytelling and therefore not about magic in a realistic setting. It is almost the opposite of magic realism, in that it questions magic, faith or what you will. For that reason I found the ending unsatisfactory. I know many others have loved it, enjoying how in the last thirty pages everything that has gone before is thrown into doubt, leaving you to question your own assumptions and your need for a good story. But I am sufficiently old-fashioned to have an affection for good stories and I felt cheated - as if the book was a bravura display by a conjurer and not a real magician. Maybe if Yann Martell had invested the same effort into the alternative story, not writing in the wonderful prose of the first half but in some other perhaps more factual style, I would have been happier, but he doesn't. The prose at the end just seems very clumsy, I assume Martell's many fans will say that it is how it is meant to be.
As I feel my way towards a deeper understanding, I am acutely aware that many others have disagreed with me and claimed the book to be a fine example of the genre. Please feel free to explain your position in the comments below.