A few days ago, it came to my attention that at that moment, in my backyard, was a very strong animal that, if I so much as looked at it in the wrong way, could ferociously rip me to pieces and devour my mangled body. Easily. What I think of as a harmless dog has the chops, claws, power, and instinct of a wild animal.
Not that my dog isn’t domesticated. Actually, he really is harmless – he’s never so much as thought about hurting a human. He has the personality of a teddy bear. And I wasn’t truly frightened. It just amazed me that such a large, powerful animal has been tamed so thoroughly over the years, by a species inferior in physical strength and ferocity.
It was Yann Martel’s Life of Pi that opened my eyes to this fact of everyday life. In fact, I began to think of the domestication of the dog as somewhat peculiar. I’m stunned to think that some man, so many years ago, was able to shift his paradigm and look at a wild dog not as a danger to be avoided, but as a potential ally. He must have spent countless hours observing the habits of dogs before summoning his courage to try and imitate them. He probably narrowly avoided death numerous times; perhaps he did die at the hands of an animal, but his work was carried on by a student of his (who was also crazy enough to put himself in that much danger). And finally, somehow, the dogs were tamed, hunting practices were revolutionized, and what started as an enemy became a valuable asset.
This was essentially what Pi Patel, the protagonist in Life of Pi, accomplished with a fully grown, 450-pound Bengal tiger. In a tiny lifeboat surrounded by miles of ocean.
The story would be intriguing to anyone. How could anyone possibly survive on a lifeboat with a tiger? Eventually the tiger would eat you. It’s as simple as that. Even if you were on a lifeboat with a totally domesticated and trained dog, it would eventually eat you once it got hungry enough. Disgusting, but true. So how does one survive alone with a tiger? The answer is: With difficulty.
The first part of the book was my favorite – the part about Pi’s childhood, before he ever ended up on a lifeboat with a tiger. I loved that Pi was part of three different religions: Hindu, Christian, and Islam, and worshipped equally in each. The book isn’t your average survival story; it’s really philosophical. In the introduction, Martel says that this story will “make you believe in God.”
Once I got to the part on the lifeboat, it was honestly difficult for me to keep reading. To me, survival stories are fascinating – if they’re true. If they’re not true, then what’s the point? Sure, it’s amazing to think that someone could survive on a lifeboat with a tiger – oh, but wait, nobody has. It’s just a novel. So the wonder and amazement gives way to critical skepticism.
It was still amazing, don’t get me wrong, and it could very well be that Martel completely buried himself in research for this book and the techniques Pi used to tame the tiger would really work. From my limited knowledge of wild animals, it seems like it could work. But it’s also entirely likely that a hungry tiger would see through the whistle-blowing and angry eye contact and realize that it would be all too easy for him to kill the very juicy boy just feet away. There’s no way to know for sure.
So, to be honest, the plot bored me a little. But I loved the writing, and I loved the character. Reading the book was worth it just to see the world through his eyes. Most survival tales don’t use that much characterization or have that much meaning; but this story was completely caked with both.
I would very heartily recommend this book, but I probably won’t read it again. It’s not my kind of story, but it’s definitely exciting.