Yann Martel's inspired novel Life of Pi is at its core a record of survival—and quite a record it is. Martel's protagonist, a 16-year-old Indian boy named Pi Patel, not only endures 227 days in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but does so while sharing a lifeboat with a 200-kilogram tiger, which regards his shipmate as a tasty sea ration. More than mere physical endurance, however, Life of Pi is concerned with the difficult perseverance of the human spirit. The tiger is a threat to Pi's body, but then becomes the key to his spiritual survival in a sea of isolation.
Martel, a French-Canadian writer of gentle wit, lets Pi tell his own story in an engaging voice, starting with a wondrous childhood in Pondicherry, India, as the son of zoo owners. In his adolescence, Pi becomes promiscuously religious: he decides he wants to be Hindu, Muslim and Christian, devoutly and simultaneously. His pandit, his imam and his priest are less than pleased. Pi doesn't see the problem. Gandhi, he reminds them, said "all religions are true," and as for himself, he says, "I just want to love God."
Bengal tigers in lifeboats and Indian boys who worship Allah, Jesus and Hindu gods could easily become precious, but Martel saves his novel from saccharine whimsy by grounding it in hard reality. He doesn't stint on the bloody details of a tiger's diet, or the immense physical suffering Pi is forced to endure. Martel has done his homework: if a tiger and an Indian boy found themselves floating in the Pacific, this is how each would respond. Most importantly, Martel doesn't make the mistake of anthropomorphizing his tiger. Richard Parker is an animal and a killer, as Pi reminds himself again and again. That the beast is also a child of God and must be saved does not make him a human.
Life of Pi is a bit overballasted by these nautical chapters. "The worst pair of opposites, boredom and terror," writes Martel, stalk Pi throughout his ordeal; inevitably, boredom leaks into his story. Hemingway had his old man stay on the sea for a metaphorically appropriate three days; Pi floats for 227.
Martel's postmodern frame and half twist of an ending both reinforce his religious themes and inject a bracing dose of uncertainty. Is Pi a trustworthy raconteur? When the story is this satisfying, it doesn't really matter. Martel leaves all claims open-ended, like his protagonist's limitless faith. If Life of Pi is not quite a story to make you believe in God, it may convince you that when it comes to existence, we're all in the same boat.