All I knew about Yann Martel’s third novel Life of Pi before I opened it was that it involved a shipwreck and animals (an element in novels that usually has me shuddering) and relied upon magical realism (a style that doesn’t light my fire). To say therefore that I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of reading it, would be an understatement. But it was on my list of Booker novels yet to be experienced and I was about to take a trip on a boat so bizarrely thought the book’s setting made it an appropriate reading companion.
What a delightful surprise to find it was a huge shaggy dog story; one that borders on implausibility but never completely tips over the edge and leaves you with a big question mark at the end.
The novel tells the story of Pi Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy who is shipwrecked in the Pacific. The sole human survivor, he has to share his lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a seasick Bengal tiger. It seems impossible that he can survive but Pi is a resourceful and determined boy: “I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day.”
Martel cleverly makes this a plausible scenario by establishing Pi’s character well before we get to the shipwreck. For the first hundred pages of the book we’re introduced to Pi and his zookeeping family, the origin of his odd name (he was initially named Piscine to reflect his grandfather’s love of swimming pools but shortened it to the mathematical symbol Pi to stop school mates calling him “pissing” ); and his early conversion to three faiths. We learn a lot about animal behaviour, the hierarchy between different species and the predator-prey relationships which will become part of Pi’s survival tactics while at sea. He has to recreate within the confines of the boat, the atmosphere and rituals of the zoo, convincing the tiger that he is the master by marking out his territory with urine and fierce stares and alternating punishments with treats. The relationship begins as one of control and the exertion of authority but shifts to one of interdependency and ultimately to love and respect as Pi comes to view the tiger not as an enemy but as a companion that he cherishes and whose continued presence is necessary to his survival.
Martel’s novel can be read purely as an adventure story, one that is well seasoned with the typical elements of storms and emergencies, of the ship that doesn’t spot the boat, of the ingenuity required to find food, collect and purify water and to shelter from the fierce sun or torrential rain.
However, there is much more to the novel than pure adventure. Ultimately this is a story about identity and faith. During Pi’s 227 days at sea he undergoes a radical change in his nature, abandoning his vegetarian habits in favour of eating raw fish and turtle, gaining confidence enough to tame the tiger and adopting some of the behaviours of an animal. The previously devout disciple of three religions grapples with his faith in God before concluding that it is his faith not his reason that enables him to survive.
I was alone and orphaned in the middle of the Pacific hanging onto an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten.
Pi’s refusal to consider his predicament “in the light of reason” enables his faith to flourish, and ultimately to help him overcome his fear.
The novel also explores a very different meaning of faith by testing our ability as readers to believe what seems unbelievable, to suspend our disbelief. It would be astonishing enough that a young boy could survive 227 at sea alone, that he does so in the confined space of a lifeboat occupied by a tiger and then is beached at floating island of carnivorous algae stretches at the borders of credulity. Martel plays on this at the very end of the novel where Pi, having been rescued, is interviewed by investigators who want to determine what caused the ship to sink. They refuse to believe his story, so Pi offers them an alternative version “…that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. ” And having done so, offers them a choice of which is the better story, pointing out that neither can be proven. Their choice is thus not based on reason, but on belief.
It was this ending that sealed my view that Life of Pi is an extraordinary novel. Concluding a novel in a way that leaves readers to make their own decision between reason and faith was audacious. I instantly forgave Martel for all the times he had strayed into details about how to drink the blood of turtles or to catch flying fish. And I immediately turned to page 1 and read the opening all over again.
Life of Pi was the dark horse choice for the 2002 Man Booker award given the competition included Carol Shields, Tim Winton and Rohinton Mistry. Not everyone was as fulsome in praising it as the Booker judges. The Daily Telegraph praised it as being ” full of clever tricks, amusing asides and grand originality” but felt overall that “it never really comes alive in the emotional sense”. Critics in the USA were more positive however. Publishers Weekly said it was “a fabulous romp through an imagination by turns ecstatic, cunning, despairing and resilient.” The New York Times concluded it “could renew your faith in the ability of novelists to invest even the most outrageous scenario with plausible life.”
Something I learned while doing some research on Martel is that between 2007 and 2011 he sent the Canadian prime minister a book with an accompanying explanatory note. In total he sent 100 notes. All the selections and correspondence were turned into a book What is Stephen Harper Reading?