Life of Pi – Yann Martel
There seems to be no better time than the present to review this novel, with the cinematic version currently hitting screens around the world and reviving interest in a book that was awarded the Man Booker Prize back in 2002. Martel’s novel tells the arresting story of a young Indian boy who spends the best part of a year marooned on a lifeboat in the company of an adult Bengal tiger. This situation, of course, stretches credulity, and is meant to, it’s what gives the novel its magical realist essence. However, the fact that the book is grounded so steadfastly in logic and science (particularly zoology), means that the plausibility of the narrative is never really problematic until it is directly challenged by two Japanese inquisitors at the end of the novel (although I say this as a non-scientist). By that stage we are so used to the presence of Richard Parker (the tiger) that we are as insulted as the narrator is by the inquisitors’ unwillingness to believe. However, although the central themes of credulity and faith are clearly fundamental to any reading of the novel, they’re not what make it readable in the first place, so I will return to them later.
The first section of the novel introduces the reader to Pi Patel, protagonist and son of an upcoming zookeeper in Pondicherry, India. His upbringing in the midst of the artificial animal kingdom that is the Pondicherry zoo is told in a series of elaborate anecdotes, each of which we will later find is in some way relevant to the central shipwreck section. This part of the novel is an encyclopaedia of zoological trivia and stories:
“If you took the city of Tokyo and turned it upside down and shook it you would be amazed at the animals that fall out: badgers, wolves, boa constrictors, crocodiles, ostriches, baboons, capybaras, wild boars, leopards, manatees, ruminants, in untold numbers. There is no doubt in my mind that that feral giraffes and feral hippos have been living in Tokyo for generations without seeing a soul.”
It is images such as this that draw the reader in, creating a highly original tapestry to act as the backdrop to the central narrative. Again, some of these initial facts stretch credulity, but this only highlights our ignorance of certain aspects of the scientific world; it’s like navigating an extravagant game of “true or false”, never really sure one way or the other. In any case, Pi Patel’s world comes alive through these stories, which prove to be an essential platform for the rest of the novel. It is also in this section that we are introduced to Pi’s twin passions for animals and religion, the latter of which he approaches with a strictly non-sectarian originality that irks the local religious authorities.
Animals and religion to some extent represent the supposedly opposite poles of Reason and Faith, a dichotomy which the narrator is keen to dispel throughout the novel, for he embraces both, as a scientist and as a theologian: the episode at the zoo during which the imam and science teacher meet puts this beyond doubt. Atheists are accorded the same respect as believers, for both have made a leap of faith after exhausting reason as a means of explaining the universe. Agnostics, on the other hand, are scorned as over-indulgers in doubt. It is over this question of faith that the novel takes on a distinctly allegorical form, and the narrative comes to represent both the beauty and strangeness of the religious ideal. This is made explicit in the final episode, in which Pi is interrogated by two shipping inspectors who refuse to believe his story. I have to say I found this final section slightly incongruous – it feels too much as though Martel is trying to tie his narrative into a bow, leaving no loose-ends or questions unanswered – and I thought the issues of faith could have been left more implicit, especially as we know Pi is deeply religious from the first section. Nonetheless, this is a novel with a uniquely attractive style, and one that asks pointed questions of the reader, and life in general. To quote Obama:
“It is a lovely book — an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” (7. Why Read?)