Life of Pi is a piscatory novel of sorts. How fun is that word? Piscatory – a literary work portraying the lives of fishermen or anglers. And since the main character is named Piscine, which comes from the same root, my first sentence is nearly a pun.  

Today’s reverence for fish-related words comes from one of my favorite blogs – wordmall, which posted today on a bunch of English words coming from the Greek ichthus and the Latin piscis, both meaning fish. 

Some examples:

ichthyomancy: divination by means of the heads or entrails of fishes (I would like to know if this kind of divining only relates to oceanic issues, or if some fish guts could tell me things about political and social events as well)

ichthyolatry: fish-worship, the worship of a fish-god

piscicle: A small fish (but not a frozen one, as I would have preferred)

piscose: Of a taste: fishy (I would love, just once, to use this word in a wine-tasting context, just to see if anyone would call me on it) 

But back to Life of Pi. (If you haven’t read this novel, you might not want to read on. I don’t give up any huge spoilers, but I do discuss some things that might ruin a fresh reading of it.) 

Life of Pi is one of the most imaginative novels I have read in a long time. I knew before opening the book that the story centered on a boy trapped at sea in a small lifeboat with a 430-pound Bengal tiger. However, I also knew there was going to be some kind of trick or twist. Anyone who has ever mentioned the book around me would get a kind of funny look on their face and ask, “wait, you’ve read that right?” and I would say no and then they would get all hush hush. Which is why my criticism of the book might not be truly fair – I spent my time expiscating*, instead of simply focusing on the story. 

Still, I have some concerns. In general, I prefer books that reveal the essence of a character through their actions or through situations where I can hear them speak and watch them interact with other characters. This seems so much more immediate to me as a reader – that whole “uninterrupted dream” thing is really what I consider the most delightful reading experience. I grow quickly wary of a character that spends most of his time explaining himself to me or explaining the world to me and what he thinks. Although a truly compelling voice can get away with this for a while, I find a story grows stale, no matter how extraordinary the material, when the “telling” takes precedence over the acts and events. Which is what I felt happened in Life of Pi. 

Life of Pi is also interrupted by a series of italicized interludes, semi-scientific observations which read somewhat like a case study. The tone of these interludes runs quite perpendicular to the tone established by Piscine’s adolescent and angst-filled narrative style and so they struck me as, at worst, affected, and at best, unnecessary. It is a heavy-handed tactic, but only one of several Martel employs throughout the book. (For those of you who have read it, the ending interview with its flat out refusal to let the reader make up their own mind, was the crowning blow of this heavy-handedness). 

Still, the story gathers a huge amount of momentum near page 90 (in my copy) once Pi is aboard the lifeboat with the animals. The next 190 pages almost attain that vivid dream I was hoping for. Almost. Pi still continues to over explain and to tell me exactly what I am supposed to make of any possible symbolism hinted at by the active parts of the novel. The story of a teenager spending seven months at sea on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger is absolutely absurd. But because of what this absurdity comes to mean, it isn’t really absurd at all. Because of the twist, this absurdity demands the reader be treated with respect. From the beginning. 

I will give an example. Chapter 56 consists entirely of three paragraphs philosophizing about fear. These three paragraphs are well written, they are intuitive, they are discerning and insightful. But to me, they are also a cop-out. Reading these three paragraphs doesn’t make me feel anything. They are only words on a page. They lack the ability to construct a fictional reality that could shove some real fear down my throat. This would be far more instructional, far more experiential and ultimately more rewarding.  

Pushing the limits of fantasy brought on by trauma is incredibly engaging, as well as touching. Human memory is a fragile thing and I love that Martel explores the idea of redemption through storytelling. But at the same time, he doesn’t really attempt to share the story with me, the reader. He doesn’t invite me to participate in Pi’s trauma, to experience my own hunger or thirst, to get my hands dirty, to get covered in fish slime or scales. I’m only allowed to watch all this from a distance safely mediated by Pi and his constant analysis of what’s going on.  

*expiscating – “fishing out”, discovering something through investigation