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Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

Reviewed by Gail Vida Hamburg
Author of The Edge of the World (Mirare Press)

Life of Pi begins earnestly with a fetchingly loquacious Author’s Note. In the italicized prelude, Yann Martel explains the perfunctory response to his previous novel in his native Canada: “Reviewers were puzzled, or damned it with faint praise. Then readers ignored it.” Martel explains his flight to India to finish his work in progress, a tale set in Portugal in 1939. “Unfortunately,” he writes “the novel sputtered, coughed and died … an element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story. The discovery is something soul-destroying.” The disillusioned writer mentions his wanderings through South India, on no particular mission apparently, other than to lose himself. In Pondicherry--a former French colonial outpost south of Madras--he meets an elderly man, Francis Adirubasamy, who tells him ominously, ‘I have a story that will make you believe in God.’ After hearing the remarkable tale, Martel writes that he tracked down the subject of the tale in Canada, to verify the story and to write about it. “It seemed natural that Mr. Patel’s story should be told mostly in the first person—in his voice and through his eyes. But any inaccuracies or mistakes are mine,” Martel ends his odd preamble to what one thought was a work of fiction.

In transitional chapters throughout the book, the reader is continually appeased by the author’s guileless reports on his encounters and conversations with the older Pi Patel -- a prominent zoologist now living in Toronto.

Piscine Molitor Patel -- the protaganist and narrator as “written” by the author -- came by his unusual name courtesy of Adirubasamy: a Francophile who loved swimming pools, especially the stately Piscine Molitor in Paris. Pi’s childhood is rendered even more unusual by his family’s exotic business—his father is the local zookeeper. “My alarm clock during my childhood was a pride of lions … counted upon to roar their heads off between five thirty and six in the morning. Breakfast was punctuated by the shrieks and cries of howler monkeys, hill mynahs and Moluccan cockatoos …after school an elephant [searched] your clothes in the hope of finding a nut, or an orang utan [picked] through your hair for tick snacks.”

Pi is an observant, pensive child— an inveterate repository of knowledge about animals and animal behavior. “It is a plain fact that the hyena is not well served by its appearance, It is ugly beyond redemption …A chimpanzee shudders and grimaces when it touches a big black spider, like you and I would do …” Pi is also an inventor of colorful tall stories about himself, a metaphysician about creature co-existence, and a lover of multiple religions. A convert to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, he even swears in pluralistic fashion: "Jesus, Mary, Mohammed and Vishnu!" The political instability of 1970s India leads Pi’s father to emigrate with his family to Canada. Accompanied by a menagerie of animals, they board a Japanese freight carrier that sinks mysteriously in the Pacific. Pi makes it to a lifeboat, along with a 450-pound Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan.

The remaining two thirds of the narrative is a meditation on survival in the face of terrible and terrifying odds, and what humans and animals will do to survive. Pi must conquer not only the sea and what lies within it, he is also forced to confront and negotiate with the elements, as well as the animals on board. He faces the eternal conundrum: how to use his cunning and ingenuity to tend to what he most fears, or risk being eaten by it. As the magnificent, “Jupiter-headed” Richard Parker looks intently at Pi, the panicked sixteen year realizes that he must tame the tiger. “It was not a question of him or me, but of him and me. We would live—or we would die—together.” Pi spends the greater part of his day catching food for the tiger and training him – he learns when to provoke the tiger, and when to hold back, when to wield his power, and when to control it. He attends to the tiger ‘s needs not merely to ensure his own safety, but also for his ultimate survival -- ''because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker.''

There is a specific kind of loneliness in castaway tales--pain is never mitigated, only amplified; primal fear is never obliterated, only silenced. Belief is so much the answer for one who is alone and adrift. At one point when things look very bleak, Pi shouts out his beliefs. Pointing at his battered turban, he yells, “THIS IS GOD’S HAT!” Pointing at Richard Parker he says, “THIS IS GOD’S CAT!” Pointing at the life boat, he says “THIS IS GOD’S ARK!” and at the sky, “THIS IS GOD’S EAR!” But Pi has his doubts. “God’s hat was always unraveling … God’s ear didn’t seem to be listening.” Faith is a central element in this book which so often reads like a parable. Surrounded by water, sky and nothing else, Pi sees the triumvirate God of his understanding, hidden everywhere. “You reach a point where you’re at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you’re the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish.”

When Pi and Richard Parker finally land on the coast of Mexico 227 days after the shipwreck, the tiger -- true to its animal nature - flees into the jungle without looking back. Pi is hurt by the botched farewell: “I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go,” he explains. The Japanese authorities who question Pi about the disaster refuse to believe his story, and press him to tell them what really happened. After hours of interrogation, Pi succumbs and tells a second story, one that is more believable. The revelation -- a jaw-dropping stunner -- may or may not be the truth.

Life of Pi can be read on two levels, as a realistic survival story or as an allegory. It ponders variously on the meaning of captivity, bestiality in man, the sacred in animal, interspecies cohabitation, God, suffering, evil, and hell. Call it what one will–-meta fiction, fable, magical realism, literature of the fantastic, , fabulist tale, allegory, hallucination—Yann Martel’s invention is a mesmerizing feat of boundless imagination, an elegy to the transfiguring powers of storytelling.


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