September 12, 2004

A life on the ocean waves

I wonder what it is about shipwreck or survival stories that fascinate people so much? As a child I read at least a half dozen stories of this genre, both classic and not-so-classic: Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, The Black Stallion and several of its sequels, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Strange Companion, and Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire." And, of course, three seasons of everyone's favourite guilty pleasure, Gilligan's Island. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I was so easily drawn into Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning masterpiece, Life of Pi.

Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a Parisian swimming pool and known to all as "Pi" Patel rather than the more obvious and unpleasant alternatives, is the teenage son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India. Discontented with the state of affairs during Indira Gandhi's state of emergency in the 1970s, his family decides to close down the zoo, sell the animals, and emigrate to Canada. They leave India aboard a Japanese freighter, bringing some animals with them that are to be sold to North American zoos.

Then the ship unexpectedly and inexplicably sinks with a "monstrous metallic burp" somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Pi, the sole human survivor, climbs aboard a lifeboat occupied by a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, a female orangutan that floats aboard on a bunch of bananas, and a 460-pound adult Bengal tiger improbably named "Richard Parker." Infighting ensues; predictably, Richard Parker climbs to the top of the lifeboat food chain. Next on the menu, Pi is physically unable to defeat a tiger in a fight. He realizes that the key to his own survival is to keep Richard Parker alive and happy.

This is a beautifully written novel. Martel's straightforward prose is a pleasure to read, vivid and descriptive without being flowery or pretentious or excessively verbose. The first third of the novel recounts Pi's childhood in Pondicherry: how he learned to swim (and how he got his unusual name and subsequent nickname), how he was brought up by his zookeeper father to respect the danger of wild animals, and how he converted to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. While some readers might it excessive that a full third of the novel is devoted to backstory, it sets up the real story by explaining how Pi managed to acquire the specific skills that enabled him to survive his ordeal. (Perhaps the author missed an opportunity here for a lesson about divine Providence.) Readers who worry about such things will be pleased to know that there are no "adult situations" or bad language in this novel, apart from the obvious childish puns about Piscine's full name. There are, however, many graphic descriptions of animal-on-animal violence.

Life of Pi is very much a self-conscious postmodern novel. Martel plays with postmodern skepticism about the knowability of true truth and the distinction between fact and fantasy. The book begins with an "Author's Note," purportedly about how Martel came to write his story. This is the part of the book that we instinctively understand to be factual, rather than fictional. Yet partway through, Martel, sitting in a café in Pondicherry, encounters a minor character from the story, who tells him he knows a story that will make him believe in God, and that he should look up Pi - now a middle-aged zoologist living in Toronto with his family - and hear it for himself. (At this point, I turned back to the page with the copyright and CIP data, to see if the standard disclaimer about this being a work of fiction and resemblances being purely coincidental, yada yada yada, was there. It wasn't.)

So right off the bat Martel creates doubt about whether this story is factual or fictional. He propagates this doubt all the way through the novel. Written as though it were a combination of Pi's memoirs and Martel's investigative reporting, it begins as a simple memoir of a childhood in Pondicherry amongst the zoo animals. Then it turns into a rousing adventure of survival on the high seas. However, some of Pi's later adventures begin to test the limits of your credulity. Finally it wraps up with a sequence that calls everything you have read into question. (Since this is a book review rather than a critical essay, I won't give away the ending; suffice it to say that if it's true M. Night Shyamalan wants to make this novel his next film project, it isn't just because he, too, hails from Pondicherry.)

Another postmodern touch is Pi's religous plurality. He is a devout Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, and sees no conflict between these three mutually exclusive faiths. By contrast, in a humorous (and cleverly written) chapter in which his priest, imam, and pandit encounter him in the zoo and quite rightly attempt to persuade him to give up two of his religions, they are portrayed as buffoons rather than wise men. "I just want to love God," the young (and naïve) Pi retorts.

Martel (through Pi) does make one insightful comment about atheists and agnostics, which is the key to understanding the meaning of the whole novel. I quote chapter 22 in its entirety:

I can well imagine an atheist's last words: "White, white! L-L-Love! My God!" - and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, "Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain," and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (70)

This, according to Martel, is true faith: to believe the "better story" even if it flies in the face of "dry, yeastless factuality." I am reminded, somewhat, of C. S. Lewis' comments in the radio talks that eventually became Mere Christianity:

Reality, in fact, is always something you couldn't have guessed. That's one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It's a religion you couldn't have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we'd always expected, I'd feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it's not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let's leave behind all these boys' philosophies - these over-simple answers. The problem isn't simple and the answer isn't going to be simpler either. (Broadcast Talks 42)

And he writes, in his essay "Miracles":

Each story must be taken on its merits: what we must not do is to rule out the supernatural as the one impossible explanation. . . . When the Old Testament says that Sennacherib's invasion was stopped by angels, and Herodotus says it was stopped by a lot of mice who came and ate up all the bowstrings of his army, an open-minded man will be on the side of the angels. Unless you start by begging the question, there is nothing intrinsically unlikely in the existence of angels or in the action ascribed to them. But mice just don't do these things. (27-28)

Lewis seems to be saying here that the better story is the more unlikely one. But I think his point is actually the opposite: in the final analysis, we should prefer the angels not because they make for a better epic, but because common sense has to trump wishful thinking. It would be nice for someone inclined to disbelieve in angels if the mice conspired to sabotage Sennacherib's archers, but unfortunately conspiracy is foreign to mousey nature. So if we're honest, we're stuck with the angels anyway.

I daresay Lewis is right, and that in the final analysis Martel's analysis of faith lacks depth, along the lines of Twain's schoolboy "believing what you know ain't so," merely because it makes for a gripping yarn. Faith in the Biblical sense isn't blind optimism in the "better story." It means taking God at his word: specifically, believing the Bible when it promises that the sacrificial death of Christ is sufficient to turn away the wrath of God on account of our own sins. "In other words," says Lewis,

I believe it on His authority. Don't be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you've been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent. of the things you believe are believed on authority. . . . A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life. (Broadcast Talks 58-59)

Still . . . don't let Martel's deficient understanding of faith keep you away from what is still a gripping yarn in its own right.


Lewis, C. S. Broadcast Talks. London: G. Bles, 1942.

---. "Miracles." God in the Dock. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. 25-37.

Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Toronto: Vintage - Random House, 2001.