Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Review of Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (New York: Harcourt, 2001)
Extraordinary. If there was only one word to describe the life of Piscine Molitor Patel, it would be this. But it probably could not be any different. When you listen to stories of survivors of various natural disasters, successful refugees from Nazi concentration camps during WWII or people whose life hung by a thread when they got lost in the wilderness but against all odds found their way back to civilization – you cannot help but realize that all these stories have one thing in common. The number of happy coincidences, lucky evasions from danger and things happening at the most convenient moments – they simply make you see the divine intervention leading to the successful ending of their story, which otherwise would not get the chance to be told. If you open your mind to Life of Pi, on its pages you will truly discover the promised potential of “a story that will make you believe in God.”
Piscine Patel, known as Pi, a sixteen-year-old boy from India, travels aboard a Japanese cargo ship to Canada, after his parents decided to emigrate because of the unstable political situation in their homeland in 1977. Among the passengers of the ship are also many zoo animals, which Pi’s father wants to sell in the US. A few nights after setting off, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat, but his thankfulness for being alive is quickly replaced by mortal fear when he discovers that his sole companions in the boat are an injured zebra, a female orangutan, a spotted hyena, and to top it all – an adult 450-pound male Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.
Yann Martel does not leave his reader in doubt and worry for long. Right at the beginning, he discloses the fact that his story has a happy ending. But when you set out to read a book about a young boy who survived 227 days trapped on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a tiger, you are probably convinced that it surely must be only a fairy tale. There simply cannot be a writer foolish enough to believe that he can convince his readers that something like this could actually happen! Unlikeable as it seems, Martel succeeds in convincing you. Not only does he write in a rapid and magnificently natural style that keeps you reading on, he actually makes you believe that what you read is a true story. Forget the classical fiction of Robinson Crusoe. Here comes the documentary of Piscine, more real than you would be willing to admit to yourself.
The first-person narration that Martel chose for telling this incredible story is easy to understand. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. You immediately fall victim to believing every word he writes. It is not difficult. The events do not simply happen the way they do without an explanation. The fact that Richard Parker does not eat Pi the first moment the idea crosses his mind is not a lucky coincidence. It is a perfectly justified result of training by which Pi establishes himself as the superior alpha-male on the boat. Being a zookeeper’s son, Pi has a sufficient knowledge in animal psychology and uses it to survive. Many of these interesting facts from the animal world are explained in the first of three parts of the novel.
This first part is written as a retrospective narration, in which the middle-aged Piscine, now living with his wife and children in Toronto, reminiscences about his childhood in Pondicherry, a former French-Indian colony. He remembers life in his father’s zoo and offers detailed explanations of how animals’ minds work. Martel takes this explanation very seriously, as it serves as the base for credibility of the story of survival that is to follow. The facts are presented with scientific accuracy, the vocabulary he uses is also very convincing, one could say it is even a work with educational purposes. This form of giving instructions is present also later on, when Pi, stuck in the boat with a tiger, offers you the manual on how to survive. His mind is brilliantly structural, works logically, in key points. In these passages, e.g. the systematic and exhaustive enumeration of the contents of the lifeboat or the precise points to be followed when taming a wild carnivorous animal in the middle of the ocean, Martel adds to the documentary illusion, persuading you that this must have really happened.
If the first section of the book can be characterized as full of useful information that later prove important for the development of the story, the second section, depicting the 227 days after the shipwreck, can be called full of opposites. Thrilling action is replaced by monotonous boredom; desperation is followed by eruptions of joy; moments of hope alter with those of utter resignation. The structure of the narration of this part is not divided equally. It is only natural that the first couple of days are described in utmost detail, while the account of the following months of starvation and abandonment is given only through the few lucid memories of the crucial events which disturbed Pi’s peaceful nightmare.
The immediate descriptions of inner mind processes of Pi in the moments when he faces death are weaved into the story together with more calm and distant reflections upon these moments. The 56th chapter, dedicated to explaining the true nature of fear, is a proof of Martel’s writing mastery. The metaphorical concept of fear as a “clever, treacherous adversary” which is “life’s only true opponent” is flawless. It is not the hunger, the dehydration, the weather, the sea, or the tiger in Pi’s lifeboat which represents the ultimate threat to his life. It is the mind, more precisely the weakness of it, which can bring him to death.
Pi’s story of survival is also a religious journey. However, in the lifeboat, God is not suddenly discovered out of nothing. We know that Pi’s religious faith has been nurtured already in Pondicherry. Raised as a Hindu, which came naturally as the result of his Indian descent, the curious boy decided to discover also other religions. He is baptized and becomes a practicing Christian, buys a praying rug and uses it as often as any exemplary Muslim. When he is confronted with an imperative to choose only one religion, he refuses claiming that he just wants “to love God.” This triplet of religions observed in one person, very own to Pi’s innermost conscience (as can be seen in his spontaneous invocations of “Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu”), can be viewed as an instance of “Canadianism” of Martel’s book. The plurality of religions in this one immigrant serves as a representation of Canada’s multiculturalism. It is not a mixture of religions at hand, rather a separate integrity of each.
During the long weary days of his main character at the sea, Martel excels not only in depicting the techniques of catching and cleaning fish, turtles and birds in times of their abundance, but also in exploring the depths of agony, starvation and despair in times of scarcity of food or fresh water. The form always corresponds with its subject matter. Therefore, when we are introduced to the French castaway, we are as unsure about the reality of his existence as Pi, who is subject to multiple delusions due to his terrible condition.
The third part of the novel, taking place in an infirmary in Mexico, supports the illusion of a true story. Written in the form of a transcript of a tape recording, it follows the conversation between Pi and two Japanese investigators whose task is to determine the cause of the dreadful ship incident. Having reached the Mexican shore, Richard Parker disappears in the jungle, leaving Pi devastated by the absence of closure. As there is no proof of the animal, the investigators find Pi’s story of survival with a tiger aboard his lifeboat very unlikely. It is only now when we are introduced to a more plausible version of what happened to Pi and we start doubting his credibility too.
Without further revelations, let me finish by heartily recommending Yann Martel’s novel to all the readers who love stories of adventure, internal aspiration, inventive imagination and reflexive meditation. Life of Pi is definitely one of them.
This review was written for the course"Canadian Literature: From the National to the Postnational" taught by Lucia Otrísalová n the 2012 summer term .
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