Life of Pi: A Novel
A book review for parents
This adventure book by Yann Martel is published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Books For Young Readers and is written for kids ages 14 to 17. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Piscine Molitor Patel, Pi for short, grows up on the grounds of a small zoo in Pondicherry, India, where his father is the owner and zookeeper. A spiritually sensitive boy, Pi finds himself drawn to religion — all religions. He was born a Hindu and worships Hindu gods, but soon he also embraces Jesus, Mary and Mohammed. Every week, he worships at the Hindu temple, the Catholic church and the Islamic mosque. Although his parents tell Piscine that he can't be more than one religion and his religious mentors from the three faiths have an ugly argument in front of him, Piscine persists. He believes that all religions are true and finds peace and satisfaction in the rituals of all three faiths.
When Pi is 16, his family plans to emigrate from India to Canada. Some of the zoo animals, to be sold in America, accompany them on a cargo ship. One night, Piscine wakes to what sounds like an explosion. He goes on deck to explore and soon finds himself alone in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The ship sinks with Pi's whole family inside, and after the tiger finishes eating the other animals, Pi and the tiger are the only survivors.
For seven months, Pi and the tiger survive because Pi works to provide food and water for them both and trains the tiger to respect him and stay in his own part of the boat. Pi holds onto his belief that God, alternately called God, Krishna, Allah, Allah-Brahman and other names, is watching over him. The boy and tiger finally land in Mexico, and the tiger runs off into the forest. Officials from the shipping company have trouble believing Pi's story, so he makes up a gruesome tale of murder and cannibalism instead. The officials leave believing that there is indeed a Bengal tiger loose in the forests of Mexico. Pi is placed with a Canadian foster mother and eventually graduates from the university, marries and has children of his own.
Although the author presents some Christian beliefs accurately, such as the fact that Jesus died to pay for mankind's sin, the overall presentation is misleading, implying that both the Christian faith and the Bible have weaknesses and that Christianity is just one way to worship and work toward unity with the Brahman, the universal soul.
Both parents and religious leaders are presented as proper authority figures. However, Pi follows his own conscience in order to worship as he pleases.
Other Belief Systems
Pi believes that Lord Krishna led him to Jesus, Mary and Mohammed. The author presents Hinduism as an ideal belief system and Islam as the most peaceful and beautiful of religions. Pi's pantheistic ideas cause him to compare himself to Cain and cry over killing his first fish. He talks of always remembering to pray for the souls of the dead animals. One time when he is trying to cheer himself up, he calls himself "God" and talks about everything around him belonging to this god (himself).
There are several uses of p---, p---ing and one case of d--n and h---bent. Other uses of h--- refer to the almost unbearable conditions of Pi's life on the lifeboat. The book includes references to animal genitals and one to human genitals. Animals' sexual habits and excretion are mentioned several times, sometimes humorously. Pi tastes and handles the tiger's excrement and tastes human flesh. The descriptions of the deaths and dismemberments of animals and people by the tiger are detailed, but the worst graphic violence is Pi's invented story of murder and cannibalism at the end of the book. It is excessively gory. In Chapter 87, Pi practices a form of mild asphyxiation as a method of escape.
There is one kiss between a husband and wife; one reference to a little girl's kiss as a simile for the power and gentleness of scriptures (note: When Pi refers to scriptures, he means all scriptures, including the Koran, the Bible and the Hindu holy writings); and one reference to a man undressing to put on swim trunks.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, 2002
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- What is Pi's argument in support of zoos?
Do you feel zoos have a part in God's plan for humans to have dominion over the animals (Genesis 1:26)?
How does God's plan for human dominion over animals play out between Pi and Richard Parker on the lifeboat?
- What effect does Pi's belief in reincarnation and karma have on his lifestyle?
How does he react to killing animals for food in order to survive?
- Why does Pi eat human flesh?
Is eating human flesh morally acceptable when you are starving?
Read Genesis 1:27. How did God make humans?
How does being made in God's image and having His breath in us make us different from animals?
- [Note to parents: There are two men with exactly the same name.
One is this atheist, who is also his biology teacher. The other is a baker and a Muslim mystic, the one who taught Pi about Islam.]
What does Pi fear about Mr. Kumar's atheist ideas?
Do Mr. Kumar's words destroy Pi's love of religion and kill God in him?
What does Pi conclude about atheists?
How are atheists his brethren but of a different faith?
Would Mr. Kumar be OK with Pi's conclusion?
- Does Pi's acceptance of all religions extend to agnosticism?
Why does he see doubt as a negative philosophy of life?
How do you feel about the agnostic's argument that truth cannot be known?
How does this conflict with the Bible?
- Pi compares an agnostic's doubt to Christ's suffering in Gethsemane and His cry on the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34).
In what ways does the author misunderstand the extent of Christ's suffering?
How does the author misunderstand the cause of it?
How is the purpose of Christ's suffering also misunderstood?
(You can discuss Christ's suffering more in-depth using Luke 22:39-44, Isaiah 53 and Hebrews 12:2.)
- Pi relates his reasons for being Hindu to the sights, smells, sounds and emotions he experiences during rituals as well as to the ideas of Hinduism that appeal to his intellect.
Why is it dangerous to rely on emotions, rituals and reason to discover Truth?
Where is Truth found?
(You can discuss this topic more in-depth by using Isaiah 44: 9-20; Romans 1:18-23; Psalm 86:10-12; John 1:14, 8:31-58, 14:6, 18:37; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; 1 John 4:5-7.)
- What are Pi's objections to Christianity?
Why does he think that the Christian God and religion do not measure up to Hinduism's beliefs and gods?
- What does Pi think about Christianity's God, especially Jesus?
Is God weak?
What is Pi's definition of weakness?
Is that a good definition for weakness? Why or why not?
Is God irritable and unworthy of what a god should be?
What is Pi's definition of what a god should be?
- Why does Pi discount Christ's miracles?
What is his basis for comparing them to magic and being no better than card tricks?
How does he feel about the power of the Hindu gods?
What is his basis for coming to this conclusion?
Are his arguments equal and valid?
- What did Pi believe tainted the Trinity?
Does Christ's resurrection matter to Pi?
What parts of Pi's discussion are true?
Which are misrepresentations of what the Bible teaches?
What is Pi's reason for becoming a Christian?
Is not being able to get Jesus off his mind a reason for being a Christian?
Is he truly a Christian in the biblical sense? Why or why not?
- The book claims this story would convince a person to believe in God.
Do you agree?
What god would this story make readers believe in?
Is it possible to be a Hindu, Muslim and Christian as Pi claimed to be?
What would keep you from fully believing in each religion?
If you pick and choose only those beliefs that you want from each religion, would that make you a true follower of each religion? Why or why not?
Is it possible for a biblical Christian to embrace any other faith? Explain.
This book misrepresents Christianity and the Bible. It presents the idea that Hinduism, Islam and all religions are good.
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.