"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 the story without animals?"
Surely the measure of a good book is that the writer can take you into an almost unbelievable situation but do so in such a confident way that you allow yourself to be carried there with your imagination not only intact but enhanced by the experience.
Back in the pre-children days when I went to see films that had a rating of more than a PG I used to sit in the dark and remember my old English teacher talking about suspending my disbelief. That phrase returned to my mind when reading Life of Pi.
In fact the book sparked various memories with the first part of the book about a childhood in India reminding me of Rushdie's writing. The middle section had me remembering Pincher Martin being shipwrecked and trying to survive on a rock by William Golding and other parts also brought up echos with a remote acidic island in the Pacific being almost a scene from a Ballard world.
But of course the way that they are all mixed together is down to Martel and he carries you through brilliantly.
The first section introduces you not only to the main character Pi, who grew up with the name Piscine Patel which caused him problems as he was known as "pissing' at school so he changes it to Pi. He lives with his brother and parents in India enjoying the life of a zoo owners son so he is surrounded by animals and understands how the animals behave in captivity. He sets out to search for God and manages to get involved with Hinduism, Christianity and become a Muslim. This causes a few problems but highlights how fervent Pi's search for truth has been.
His religion is put to the test in the second part of the book when the boat taking his family and a few of the animals to Canada to start a better life is sunk leaving Pi and an assortment of animals clinging to life in a lifeboat. On board is a zebra with a broken leg, orangutan, hyena and a tiger. The tiger is called Richard Parker, after a cock-up with the naming papers when he was captured, and after the animals start feeding off each other it ends up with just Pi and Richard sharing the boat. They share that small space, each holding onto each other's territory, for 227 days until the boat arrives on the shores of Mexico.
The final section deals with a couple of Japanese insurance agents who have been sent to quiz the sole survivor of the sunk ship over what might have happened. Their notes contain a great deal of humour and ask of Pi most of the questions the reader would want to know. Were the animals really there or was it an allegory for human behavior. To satisfy their need for something they can understand Pi gives them a story where the animals are human characters from the boat. But what really happened is the question that returns to the belief in God. You can argue all you like that something is not true but if you have faith, well then things are different.
I know some people will have struggled with the book because of its mixture of symbolism, soul searching and oddness but those that read it as a self contained story and not as something that is a springboard to encourage further thoughts in the reader are limiting the experience by setting their own boundaries.
In some ways the story is fantastic and the details of the routine to survive are sometimes edging the limits of your reading tolerance but those are minor faults with a book that takes you as a reader on the most wonderful journey. Apart from the second section possibly going on to long I enjoyed the book immensely and can see why it won the Man Booker.
Pi ends telling the Japanese agents that they will not come across Richard Parker because he has hidden himself where he can never be found. That is a hope that perhaps lies in all of us that our inner tiger can be contained and kept at bay.