Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- Length: 1762 words (5 double-spaced pages)
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Life of Pi is intended, so Martel tells us, to make the reader believe in God. This bold, apparently evangelical, premise locates it on a dangerous moral high ground. D.H. Lawrence warned against using the novel as a forum for the author to assert his own moral or religious belief:
Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality. (D.H. Lawrence, "Morality and the Novel")
Aesthetically, the fiction which reveals a truth by explicit sermonising rather than as a natural conclusion drawn from the relationships and events it presents, is displeasing, even "immoral." Indeed, Martel's statement is likely to have the opposite effect on his reader, provoking a determined counter-reaction not to succumb to a didactic religious agenda. Surely enough, Life of Pi fails to meet its ambition. As he travels through its pages, apparently on the Damascun road to enlightenment, the reader will not, atheist or already committed follower, experience some major revelation to the spirit, coming to, or restoring, a belief in God.
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Nor, despite Martel's explicit but deceptive statement, is he intended to. Instead, Life of Pi achieves something more quietly spectacular: it makes the reader want to believe in God. Martel gives the reader the democratic choice: the desire to believe rather than the belief itself. We do not have to agree with the ideology Martel delivers, but we can support to the full the way he says it, for Martel inspires the reader's desire by invoking the spirit of the fairy tale - the simple narrative which may reveal virtues and ethics yet is primarily concerned with entertaining the reader (or listener, as young children often are of such stories) in magical ways which powerfully invoke the active imagination.
Martel insures his novel against critical dialects which insist on penetrative analysis and engagement with the text on a political rather than emotional level, whose goal is establishing meaning and influence behind a linguistic act. He reawakens the central power of the story as yarn and legend, as the entertaining narrative told round the camp fire and handed between generations, designed to pass the night hours with captivating drama rather than to deliver political analyses on contemporary society. Life of Pi's printed words have the loud echoes of orality as the text is framed by acts of speech, hearing and translation. In the initial pages, Martel assumes an italicised guise, focusing on the fact that the narrative to follow is one he has heard coincidentally, not deliberately created. He is the eventual author of a story which is not his own but which belongs to Pi, its primary teller; Martel's task is one of translation, not creation, interpretation or even alteration. Likewise, at the close, the child Pi relates his narrative again to two foreign interviewers, who record his words - and their own naive, uncomprehending interpretation of them - on a dictaphone with vicious electronic permanence. The text we read is a solid record of a story which is, in its vocal form, endlessly fluid, subject to change and amendments to increase its interest for a captivated audience. In normal circumstances such self-consciousness about the literary act might challenge the reader, forcing him into noting the multiple ways and biases with which a single event can be portrayed by a writer, to question the integrity and believability of the narrative, to analyse the text itself as an artefact rather than what that text says. Yet in this instance the challenge is to avoid doing this, and thus to be unlike the pessimistic and dully factual insurance brokers who interrogate Pi at the end. We must lower our critical consciousness, becoming passive recipients of an emotionally pleasing narrative, unquestioning of its real authenticity.
Indeed, one of central metaphors of the novel, the name of the hero Pi, establishes these two alternative modes of reaction: the rational and the aesthetic. 'Pi' is an irritating and unique number for the mathematician who, above all other academics, desires certainty and factuality. It is a number continuous and complex, fascinating for its infinite randomness yet frustrating precisely because as a product of circular maths it defies rules of explanation; it is produced by a single logical equation, yet the product itself is uncontainable. The novel functions in line with this paradox. As divisible into beginning (Martel's italicised voice), middle (the main story) and end (the Japanese questioners) as a circle is by its radius, the novel occupies too perfectly 100 chapters. Yet the miraculous outcomes of this definite structure - a small boat, an Indian boy, a 450-pound Bengal tiger and a meeting with a Frenchman in the middle of a vast ocean - defy explanation, logic, reality. This is magic realism in its most subversive form because it contains the most uncanny events produced from the most obviously conventional means of comprehension: language, publishing, a trustworthy author in control of his narrative.
Martel takes different modes of discourse and genre, mutates their characteristics and mixes together them between a single set of covers. Like India, which is a harmonious point of collision of different cultures and religions, and of which Pi (who derives different choice benefits from the three religions he follows simultaneously) is the most vivid embodiment, the book holds together styles from different departments of the library. In the opening chapters of Pi's story, he makes an empathic analysis of zoology and animal psychology which seems to owe something to Gerald Durrell. Taking common sense as its index, Martel/Pi explains how creatures feel and thus logically why tigers can be tamed by man and why wild creatures are content to stay in zoos. It is remarkable because it makes the reader see animals in a different way, as bodies holding emotional content, rather as simply sharp-clawed vehicles for the carrying out of violent primal instincts. But if emotional animals (who also, unhappily, get seasick) are remarkable because the reader has not thought of them in such terms before, is this any more astonishing than the discovery of an uncharted carnivorous island inhabited solely by meerkats in the middle of the ocean? Might it simply be that, just as we haven't thought about animals as possessing emotional soul, we haven't yet opened our minds to the possibility of discovering of a new natural wonder? Darwinian theory is placed against humanistic (or in this case animalistic) empathy. In this island scene, an incident which occurs crucially just as the novel seems to be becoming - dare one say this about a story about a child sharing a boat with a Bengal tiger? - repetitive and conventional, the Eden myth is reconfigured in a chilling biological reversal where trees consume men. The natural environment is fluid and adaptable and Man is anything but in perfect control or understanding of it, despite his presumptuous arrogance.
Martel's choice of the narrative of the lone survivor - and what is arguably the first recognisable novel, Robinson Crusoe, comes under this generic marker - as his underlying structural guide is interesting. The castaway narrative exposes man in his most basic state as the descendant of monkeys, concerned with existence rather than production, his superiority one of intellect rather than technology. Computers, cars, household appliances detach us from our organic existence, making us seem closer to machines than mammals on the evolutionary scale. The castaway loses all such objects. He may create new ones, but in the process we are reminded that it is the thought processes which come first, and their speed and complexity which marks us out from animals, not the tools we use and which are the by-products and physical evidence of that psychology. In Robinson Crusoe, just as Crusoe seems to have built and adapted to his new environment there is an earthquake. His house collapses- his technology fails - but in the process his belief in God (surely one of the most complex, because so abstract, of all thoughts) is awakened. Likewise as Pi's boat rusts, his clothes decay, his survival rations run out, Pi becomes increasingly sensitive to the natural embodied in the tiger, more alert to his own mental state, more aware of what fundamentally distinguishes human and not beast. The castaway's narrative, whilst thoroughly exciting for the comparative heroism of its central character - we cannot help but question, when reading such tales, 'would I have coped as well in his position?' - also examines with sterile and scientific cleanness - because it happens away from crowds of other people and the clutter and clatter of the machinery of daily life - the essential qualities of being of the human species.
This sense of stripping bare is why the novel works so well. Without displaying explicitly the hallmarks of the modern novel - metafictional self-reference; the need to be engaged and politically 'relevant'; the need to explain and educate as well as simply to tell - the central story of Pi's survival is purely heroic, fascinating, thrilling and unusual. When Martel is self-conscious, noting the nature of the text as a linguistic act itself rather than focusing on what it tells, this is only to highlight the difference between alternative modes of reception, that of the analytical literary critic sat at his office computer and that of the child listening to his mother at night. The castaway narrative balances elementary yet dramatic things happening (days passing, fish caught, rescue ships encountered) with moral self-discovery. Yet Martel's sense of humour, the constant revelations that things are not what they appear (I will not spoil the joke here, but who is Richard Parker?) means that we are entertained unconscious of what of human psychology is being exposed in the process. If entertainment is the primary ambition of the story and the primary desire of its reader, in the binary challenge with which Martel closes - to have an entertaining story or a factual story, to have a god whose presence can't be measured or to have a world ordered by rational science - there is only one positive conclusion.
And I am aware that, in writing the above, I must therefore live upon the latter pole, seeking to explain rather than to observe, to understand rather than to accept, to dig deep for meaning rather than to lie back for pleasure. Yet even for me, though wearing a starchly ironed literary critical uniform, the book's essential power and paradox remains: a story which is singularly irrational and unbelievable, in which I want desperately, irrationally, to believe.
Life of Pi tells the fantastical story of Pi Patel, a sixteen-year-old South Indian boy who survives at sea with a tiger for 227 days. Pi, born Piscine Molitor Patel, grows up in the South Indian city of Pondicherry, where his father runs the zoo. A precocious and intelligent boy, by the age of fifteen Pi—Hindu from an early age—has also adopted Christianity and Islam, and considers himself a pious devotee to all three religions.
Thanks to government upheaval that has long been distressing Pi’s father, the Patels decide to close the Pondicherry Zoo and move to Canada when Pi is sixteen. Pi, his mother, father, and brother Ravi all board the Tsimtsum along with the zoo’s animal inhabitants (who are on their way to be sold around the world).
An unexplained event causes the Tsimtsum to sink, and Pi is the only human to make it onto the lifeboat and survive. Along with Pi, the lifeboat contains a hyena, a zebra, Orange Juice the orangutan, and Richard Parker the tiger. The hyena kills and devours both the zebra and Orange Juice, before Richard Parker kills the hyena. Pi is left alone on a lifeboat with an adult male tiger.
There is no land in sight and the ocean is shark-infested, so Pi builds a raft which he attaches to the lifeboat, to keep himself at a safer distance from Richard Parker. Eventually, however, life on the raft proves too exhausting, and Pi realizes that if Richard Parker gets hungry enough, he will swim to it and kill Pi. So Pi decides that he must tame Richard Parker. Using a whistle, seasickness, and a turtle-shell shield, Pi manages to assert his authority over Richard Parker and delineate his own territory on the lifeboat, where he is comparatively safe from the tiger.
While at sea, Pi and Richard Parker face many challenges, traumas, tragedies, and miraculous occurrences. They never have sufficient food and fresh water, and the constant exposure is highly painful. A severe storm, which they miraculously survive, destroys the raft. Pi manages to capture and kill a bird. They are almost crushed by an oil tanker, which then passes by without seeing them.
During an especially severe period of starvation, Pi and Richard Parker both go blind. While blind, Pi hears a voice, and realizes that they have drawn near another lifeboat that contains a similarly starving and blind Frenchman. Pi and this man converse for a while, and bring their boats together. The Frenchman climbs onto Pi’s boat, and immediately attacks him, planning to kill and eat him. He doesn’t realize that there is a tiger on the boat, however, and accidentally steps into Richard Parker’s territory. The tiger immediately attacks and kills him. Pi, saved at the cost of his attacker’s life, describes this as the beginning of his true moral suffering.
Pi and Richard Parker come upon a weird island that is made of algae with trees protruding from it, teeming with meerkats but no other life. Pi and Richard Parker stay on the island for weeks, eating the algae and the meerkats, growing stronger, and bathing in and drinking from the fresh water ponds. They never stay on the island at night, however, Pi because he feels safer from the tiger in his delineated territory, and Richard Parker for a reason unknown to Pi. Pi eventually starts to sleep on the island, and while doing so realizes that the island is carnivorous—it emits acid at night that dissolves anything on its surface. Greatly disturbed by this, Pi takes Richard Parker, and they leave the island.
Pi and Richard Parker eventually land on the Mexican beach. Richard Parker immediately runs off into the jungle without acknowledging Pi, which Pi finds deeply hurtful. Pi is found, fed, bathed, and taken to a hospital. There, two Japanese men come to question Pi about what caused the Tsimtsum to sink. He tells his story, which they do not believe, so he offers them a more plausible version, with the animal characters replaced by other humans, which casts doubt on the original story.
Throughout the novel, the story is interrupted by the author’s notes on Pi as he is now, telling this story to the author. After recovering in Mexico he went to Canada, where he spent a year finishing high school and then studied Religion and Zoology at the University of Toronto. At some point, he got married, and he now has two children. He still thinks of Richard Parker, and is still hurt by his final desertion.