The "Story of Pi" is a novel, whose main character is a 16-year-old Indian boy named after a French swimming pool. Piscine Molitor Patel, otherwise known as "Pi" and the son of a Hindu zookeeper in Pondicherry, fancies himself to be, all at once, a good Hindu, a practicing Muslim, and a devout Catholic. The real story of Pi begins when Pi"s family decides to uproot and emigrate from India to Canada on a Japanese cargo ship, with many of their zoo animals on board, which they hope to sell on arrival in North America.
When the ship unexpectedly sinks without explanation, Pi finds himself the only human survivor in a lifeboat with several of the animals--a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. The hyena quickly does in the zebra, after which the tiger makes short work of the orangutan and the hyena, leaving Pi and the tiger--called Richard Parker, after the hunter who captured him, owing to an uncorrected clerical error when the form was originally filed at the zoo--as two of the most unlikely traveling companions crossing the Pacific Ocean in Kon-Tiki style during the years 1977-78.
What ensues is the fiercest, most outrageous survival story you have ever read in your life, with three protagonists: Pi, the Bengal tiger, and the sea, all battling it out. Can it be done? Who will win? From the beginning, the whole narrative seizes the imagination in the most bewildering ways. It doesn't take too long before Pi discovers his own intense will-to-live:
"It's not something evident, in my experience. Some of us give up on life with only a resigned sigh. Others fight a little, then lose hope. Still others--and I am one of those--never give up. We fight and fight and fight. We fight no matter what the costs of battle, the losses we take, the improbability of success. We fight to the very end...."
The struggle to tame a Bengal tiger with whom you are stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of an endless panorama of nothing but blue ocean conjures up situations the likes of which you have never encountered either in real life or even in your imagination, which is what gives this book its unusual flavor. Yet it all seems utterly plausible and convincing.
"I had to tame him," Pi says of the tiger. "It was not a question of him or me, but of him AND me. We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat. We would live--or we would die--together. He might be killed in an accident, or he could die shortly of natural causes, but it would be foolish to count on such an eventuality."
How Pi manages to tame the tiger has to be read to be believed. But the challenge is what gives him something to live for during the 227 harrowing days that he is lost and adrift at sea, battling not only the elements and his status as alpha male with respect to the tiger, but warding off the constant threat of depression, fear, rage, madness, hopelessness, and apathy. All during that time, Pi has no way of controlling where he is going--the boat has no rudder, sails, or motor--and no way of plotting a course in any case.
I love this book, but it was only on page 237 that I suddenly understood what had led me, willy-nilly, to take it off the shelf now, given that it has been sitting around unread for several years. The hidden, but timely, synchronicity of which I was unaware is that Pi wakes up one morning in the Pacific equatorial counter-current--the very same gyre--that features in my blogs about Pam Longobardi's work, the albatross necklace, and the Plastiki bottle boat. He finds himself s surrounded by trash:
"First the water glistened with patches of oil. Coming up soon after was the domestic and industrial waste: mainly plastic refuse in a variety of forms and colours, but also pieces of lumber, beer cans, wine bottles, tatters of cloth, bits of rope and, surrounding it all, yellow foam. We advanced into it. I looked to see if there was anything that might be of use to us...."
After the encounter with the Pacific gyre, there is a potent brief interlude spent on an floating island made entirely of bright green algae, where Pi enjoys some refreshing and revivifying days--until he discovers with horror that the monster plant is carnivorous. My friend Jane, who has read the book, tells me that around New Orelans, down in the bayou, there are similar "floatons," little floating island-like tangles of weed and algae and marsh grasses, with surfaces that a person can actually walk on. "Think of them," she says, "as living green brillo pads. You sink into the sponginess, but you don't fall through. Incidentally, alligators love to nest on floatons."
Bubbles come up on the water as Virgil assures me that yes, this book is as good as it gets, especially for an alligator, because it rips away your breath in ways you will never forget. But he wishes it had been him on that boat instead of the Bengal tiger. After a long sweep of seven months at sea, Pi's boat finally drifts onto a beach in Mexico. Bright and quick, Richard Parker leaps out and runs off, straight into the jungle, without even one last loose smile or a split second of eye contact with Pi.
"I wept like a child," says Pi. "It was not because I was overcome at having survived my ordeal, though I was....I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell....It's important in life to conclude things properly....That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day...."