By Yann Martel
Reviewed by Alan Green
The Life of Pi is the heartwarming story of a boy and his tiger. It is a strange parable, a lesson in zoology, an exploration of the art of storytelling, a meditation on the nature of faith and a gripping adventure story. It describes itself as “a story that will make you believe in God.” That’s debatable but hopefully it will make you think about the miracles of life and of fiction.
The Life of Pi is one of the more interesting books of recent years and definitely one of the more deserving winners of the coveted Booker prize. Our hero is a young Indian boy called Pi. Following a shipwreck that kills his entire family he finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with no human company. Unfortunately he isn’t alone. There are four other survivors on board, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger. Nature takes it’s course and soon only Pi and the tiger are left. His grueling struggle to survive in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with only a ruthless predator for company is at the heart of the novel.
Yann Martel gives us Pi’s background story before stranding him in the middle of the sea. The first section of the novel describes Pi’s happy childhood in Pondicherry, India. Pi’s father is a zookeeper so he grows up surrounded by animals. That might sound a bit whimsical but thankfully it isn’t. It is an idyllic upbringing but he is taught to respect animals and to fear “Animalus anthromorphicus, the animal as seen through human eyes”, for example a tiger that is perceived as cuddly or friendly.
Pi’s full name is Piscine. His parents named him after a swimming pool in France. After enduring years of being referred to as “Pissing” he decided to take action. When he started a new school he got everyone to call him Pi, as in the infinite number 3.14 etc.
As a teenager Pi starts searching for God. His parents are nominally Hindu but they have a basically secular view of life. Fired by a Hindu sense of reverence for the divine in all things Pi becomes a true seeker and finds Christ and Islam. He manages to weave these three strands together perfectly successfully until the local priest, iman and pandit all happen to run into him and his parents. Once they discover how broad his faith is they argue amongst themselves and try to convince him to choose a path. Pi silences them all by saying that he just wants to “love God.”
The bickering of the three devout men is a gentle satirical dig at organized religion in a book that is largely at least superficially pro-religion. It is certainly in favour of a sense of religious awe in the face of the wonders of life. Pi himself is deeply religious in the best possible sense, he has moments of intense spiritual awareness and he really does just want to “love God”.
Understandably zoology is Pi’s other main interest. He defends zoos against those who claim that they are cruel. His arguments provide an interesting insight into animal nature and into his own character. They also give Martel a chance to mock the emptiness of our notions of freedom. In what sense is an animal in the wild free? Most animals are creatures of habit they stay in their own territory and they follow a fairly strict routine. In the case of pack or herd animals they are tightly tied into their own social groups. Just as we are coming round to the idea that animals don’t want freedom he points out that we are also tied to our routines, our territory and our social groups. Ouch.
The novel is framed by Yann Martel’s description of how he came to write it. He combines truth and fiction to try to add a taste of reality to a story that will stretch your ability to suspend your disbelief. He tells us that he traveled to India in order to write a novel about Portugal. To his dismay that book died on him but he soon found out that the Indians were eager to share their stories. Most of the tales he heard weren’t anything special but one of them really stuck out from the crowd, naturally that was the story of Pi and his tiger. For those of you who care about such things he really did go to India and he really did try to write a novel about Portugal but Pi is purely a product of his imagination.
I’m not sure that the authorial intrusions actually add much to the novel. They aren’t completely pointless. The fact that we are supposedly hearing the story from the perspective of the adult Pi gives Martell a license to indulge in various entertaining digressions. I suppose it does discourage us from treating the story as a pure allegory. It also makes it clear that despite everything the boy on the raft will somehow survive.
Part one was interesting but it is in part two that the story really gets going. The first section of the novel ends with Pi, his family and some of the zoo animals heading for a new life in Canada. The second section opens with the admirably concise and punchy sentence “The ship sank.” In the chaos that follows Pi manages to end up in a lifeboat with his strange collection of animals.
A hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, a tiger and a small boy wouldn’t normally find themselves trapped together in a confined space. It isn’t a natural situation and it isn’t one that is going to carry on for very long. After a few short chapters Pi is left alone with the tiger. Due to an administrative error the ferocious beast is called “Richard Parker”.
Pi comes to the conclusion that his only hope is to train Richard Parker. He decides that he needs to be the alpha male on the boat. If you want to know how to go about training a tiger on a small lifeboat in the middle of the ocean then this is the book for you. Basically the secret is feed the tiger, use a whistle to startle it and vomit on the borders of your territory but if you want to know the details you will have to read The Life of Pi.
Pi’s time on the lifeboat is described in moving language. We share the depths of his despair and his moments of triumph. Physical survival is a real problem but his inner struggle is even more intense. As he eventually realizes it is actually Richard Parker who saves him. In a strange way the tiger keeps him company. It also gives him something to do. You can’t sit around moping and bewailing your lot if you have a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger to train.
One of the stranger parts of the tale is an encounter with a deadly floating island that is inhabited solely by meerkats. Attempts to interpret this novel seem to flounder on the Island of the Meerkats. People who have decided that everything represents something have trouble fitting it into their model of what the book is about. It’s a valuable part of the story for that reason alone but it also contains some great images and some memorable moments.
Yann Martel has created a novel that will appeal to a wide variety of people because it works on so many different levels. If you like animals then you’ll love it, especially if you’re a tiger fan. Personally I’ve always thought meerkats were quite cool but that might just be me. If you enjoy a good tale of adventure then he offers you a classic survival story with some nice fantastical twists. If you like some philosophical depth in your book then it can be read as an exploration of our relationship with nature and the divine. If you admire story telling as a craft in its own right then you will find a lot to make you smile. In fact anyone who loves a good story should spend some time on the Pacific Ocean with Pi and Richard Parker.
If you haven’t read The Life of Pi and you find spoilers really annoying then you shouldn’t read the rest of this review. It isn’t a major spoiler, actually I’m going to argue that it really isn’t that important but I wouldn’t have wanted to know it before I read the book. The first part of the review works on it’s own.
THE BIG DEBATE ABOUT THE ENDING
At the end of the book Pi finally reaches Mexico and Richard Parker runs off into the jungle. At this point Yann Martel plays a little trick on his readers. Two shipping company officials show up and try to find out what happened to the ship. Pi tells them his story but they refuse to believe him so he offers to tell them a different story, a more plausible one. In the second story Pi ends up on a lifeboat with his mum, the ship’s cook and a young sailor. Bloodshed, murder and cannibalism follow. The second story parallels the first one in various different ways. Did Pi make up the original story to protect himself from the pain of the truth or is the second story just what he thinks they expect to hear?
It is a neat little postmodern trick. We are invited to have a debate about which story is “true”. You can if you want. Chat about it on the forum if you like but the truth is that this is a work of postmodern fiction and Martel is playing with us. The question is deliberately open-ended. The “truth” of the story is deliberately ambiguous. There is no definitive answer. We may as well argue about what sound one hand clapping makes or whether or not a tree makes a sound if it falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it. Not that those are fruitless debates (I could do with some enlightenment) but they don’t have an answer in the conventional sense.
If we decide to take the bait and argue one way or the other then we have to look at the question in the light of the religious theme in the novel. Pi is deeply spiritual but Yann Martel’s own views are less clear. Interestingly he seems to argue in favour of religion but from an agnostic standpoint. He shows us that if we truly come face to face with the majesty of the universe awe and wonder are almost the only responses. Having said that he definitely doesn’t shy away from the truth that this wonderful world also contains a lot of suffering. He implies that if you take these two truths together you conclude that the best way to live is to create myths, to tell stories about life which help you to respect the wonders of existence and also give you the strength to face it’s more painful moments. In other words he isn’t sure if God actually exists but he thinks it’s a good idea to believe in Him because the idea of God is beautiful and useful. So it’s only “a story to make you believe in God” if we are using the word “believe” in a fairly loose sense.
If we insist on choosing a true story then we found ourselves forced to frame the question in terms that reflect that view of life. Beautiful, profound myth or ugly, painful reality? The deep questioning nature of the novel is thus reduced to a rather limited debate. We risk closing down the book’s ambiguities but I’ll admit that we are invited to decide which is “the better story”. Do you prefer the enjoyable but fantastical one or the bleak but more plausible one? “The story with animals or the story without animals?”