Travels with my tiger

Life of Pi

By Padma Viswanathan

Published on October 1, 2001

Life Of Pi
Yann Martel

Knopf Canada
$32.95
cloth
352pp
0-676-97376-0

Yann Martel is a writer with a firm but strictly one-handed grip on reality. And the other hand? Conjuring doves, lassoing great beasts, drawing fantastic doodles?

His writing suggests any and all of the above. Martel’s first novel, Self, was a largely social realist account of a young person’s discovery of the world, maturation as a writer, and search for love, with a magical twist: this young person began life as a boy, transformed spontaneously at eighteen into a woman, and later changed back into a man. In Martel’s second novel, Life of Pi, he tacks differently, telling a tale which is, he admits, “wildly improbable, but not impossible.” A work of enormous verve and clarity, Life of Pi centres on a 227-day shared lifeboat occupancy – shared, that is, by the eponymous protagonist and a Bengal tiger. “I did want to test the limits of the believable,” Martel says about creating this story which seems utterly incredible and yet if examined part by part, fact by fact, cannot be disproven.

Martel commences his challenge to the reader’s faith with a seemingly non-fictional preface, in which he describes sitting, despondent, in a coffee house in India after having given up on the novel he thought he had crossed the ocean to write. In the coffee house, he meets an old man who, on finding out Martel is a writer, regales him with the story of Piscine Molotor Patel (named for a family friend’s favourite Paris pool), aka Pi. Pi grows up the son of a zoo owner in Pondicherry, a former French colony on India’s southeast coast. The family is secular but belongs to the majority Hindu religion. Pi shocks his progressive parents and the conservative religious leadership of his community when he is inspired in early adolescence to also become a practicing Christian and a Muslim.

There is certainly nothing in Hinduism which prohibits the worship of gods recognized by other religions, and Islam and Christianity are hardly contradictory. From Pi’s perspective, his active devotion to three major world religions is quite logical but he is an unusually courageous boy in this sense – he acts on that which others refuse even to let themselves see. “…Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians,” he says, relaying a friend’s mishearing of ‘Hare Krishnas,’ “just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.”

Though Pi and his brother are content in Pondicherry, his parents become increasingly insecure as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Emergency progresses through the mid-’70s. Finally, Patel senior decides to sell off the zoo and relocate the family to Canada. The Patels, along with numerous animals destined for North American zoos, embarks on its voyage aboard a Japanese-operated cargo ship. The ship sinks, and thus Pi’s real odyssey begins.

In the preface, the old man in the café grabs the writer’s attention by telling him he has a story to make him believe in God. Apocrypha aside, what would motivate a thirty-eight year old Montrealer, the son of diplomats, a former philosophy student, to want to tell a story of religious faith? Knowing that Martel has just returned from walking the European pilgrimage route Santiago de Compostela, I ask if he considers himself a seeker. “Yes,” he responds without hesitation. “Definitely. Like most white western males, I had a very reasonable upbringing. I think reason is a very powerful tool but to me it’s like one of those red lights that keeps french fries warm in restaurants – at one point it kills everything. It kills mystery. I think that’s a very common thing in the west, a kind of spiritual hunger.”

Martel consciously took on the challenge of overcoming his own cynicism, of entering into the worldview of the religious person. While more than aware of the many and easily enumerated evils perpetrated in the name of religion, he found himself drawn to stories of the faithful enduring, forgiving, being happy in the world no matter what blows their lives deliver.

To illustrate what he started to see as the value of faith, Martel draws a wonderful parallel between his protagonist’s name, which is the same as p, the unending numeral which begins 3.14, and our search for meaning in a largely- let’s face it – irrational and wonderfully confounding universe. “p is one of these basic numbers that is used in science to explore the world. It’s used constantly in engineering, in mathematics. Yet it’s an irrational number. That’s used, not because it’s insane, that’s the term they use. But I like how in our rational exploration of the world, we use an irrational number. To me, religion is like that, too. It’s irrational but it makes sense of the universe.”

Martel indicates that his own objections to religion were largely intellectual, but it’s clear much of his interest was also intellectual. “The research was really fun,” he enthuses, warming to his subject in a Mile End café. Martel is wiry and wild-haired, a steadfast vegetarian and yoga practitioner, an intense presence who practically gives off sparks as he describes digging into religious texts, reading the New Testament as if it were Shakespeare, finding guides to discuss the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran. He’s almost out of his seat with excitement, but his fervour seems less that of the devout than of one who wants to learn. But people come to religion in different ways. And it’s not uncommon for travellers to come to it in India, a country often remarked upon for the way in which religion pervades every aspect of daily and national life, and where all three of Pi’s religions co-exist in close quarters. Martel admits that location may have been key in establishing the book’s premises, the germ of the book having come to him amidst visits to Indian mosques, temples, and churches.

It didn’t come to him in the way described in the book’s preface, though. In 1991, Martel read a review of a novel by Brazilian Jewish writer Moacyr Scliar, about a ship sinking with a zoo on board en route from Berlin to Brazil. The zookeeper ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther. “It wasn’t at all a positive review,” recalls Martel, “but I remember saying, that is an amazing premise. I can do something with that.” Martel never did find Scliar’s book, but in 1996, while in the abovementioned slough of writerly despond, the sight of a macaque somehow reminded him of this premise he had filed away in his imaginative unconscious.

Once Martel came up with the central incident, he made quite some fun for himself developing a story around it. A panther he deemed too small. He considered an elephant or hippo – the animal had to be one found in India – but couldn’t escape the fact that these animals, while indubitably large, were herbivorous. He settled on a Bengal tiger; he did enormous quantities of research on zoos, animal behaviour, castaways and shipwrecks. In contrast with Self, a quite draining book to write (though an excellent, absorbing one to read), the job of creating Life of Pi infused Martel with a buoyancy evident in the writing and in his manner as he talks about it. “I loved every day of work on this novel,” he asserts. “There was never a day when I didn’t enjoy (the tiger’s) company.” Would that that were true for his protagonist. Having grown up in a zoo, Pi has an all too vivid understanding of the danger he is in. He also has some ideas on how it can be faced down. Earlier in the book, Pi relates, as though they’re incidental, fascinating factoids and anecdotes relating to territoriality (“If you fall into a lion’s pit, the reason the lion will tear you to pieces is not because it’s hungry…but because you’ve invaded its territory.”) and zoomorphism (“Dogs are sometimes used as foster mothers for lion cubs. Though the cubs grow to become larger than their caregiver, and far more dangerous, they never give their mother trouble and she never loses her placid behaviour or her sense of authority over her litter.”) The cumulative effect of these details is to break down our resistance to Pi’s incredible story. Many extremely unlikely things happen in the world (and particularly in this book, which also includes, for example, an island that consumes living beings), events not outlawed by nature, but whose actual occurrence still seems miraculous.

If Pi’s intelligence and ingenuity give him the physical means to survive, his faith gives him succour. Still, it wasn’t until the end of Life of Pi that this reader really understood how the religious theme was integral to the book. It is then that Martel’s other stake in the theme – that of the fiction writer – is revealed.

“The theme of the novel can be summarized in three lines,” Martel discloses. “Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story. And to my mind, the greatest imaginative overlay is some kind of religious thing. God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material – any greater pattern of meaning.”

At the close of the novel, Pi is interviewed by two Japanese shipping officials who are extremely sceptical about the veracity of his tale – this boy spent the better part of a year on an open boat with a starving tiger? He bumped, during a period of temporarily blindness, into another lifeboat containing another blind castaway? A flesh-eating island, for God’s sake? Why should they believe all this? Pi’s response is ‘Why not?’ To satisfy them, though, he offers quite another version of events, a story without animals, without adventure, with only trauma and tragedy and irresolution, that lands him, ultimately, in exactly the same place – alone, near starved but alive, in a Mexican hospital. Which story the officials accept makes absolutely no difference to their investigation. They agree that the original story is the better one, but it is the ‘worse’ story that they believe.

Does Martel suppose most readers will believe Pi’s preferred version is some elaborate kind of denial? “I’m convinced that most people will say the real story is the one without animals, and the one with animals is an allegory,” Martel nods, somewhat sadly. “Our reasonableness has withered our imaginative capacity. Most people have lost their capacity to see more. To use the word denial is to already have a prejudice against one of the stories.”

As upon reading Martel’s previous works, it is impossible not to be struck by the terrific daring of this project. English fiction set in South Asia is at its historical apex and ugly accusations of appropriation facilely cast about. Martel actually addressed this in a 1996 interview. Apropos of asserting he’s not a travel writer despite the importance of travel in his writing, he said, “I’m not interested in writing about India, for example – Indian writers will write about India. It’s not fear of voice appropriation, it’s because it’s already complicated enough being Canadian – I don’t want even to begin imagining being Indian.”

“I said that?” he gasps in our interview and shakes his head. The point is, he’s willing to enter territory even he says is ill-advised. And that he succeeds at it – the scenes set in India feel as real or invented as anything by an Indian author. India is complex enough that no individual book or author begins to cover its range of meaning and contradiction.

Writing positively about religion, or even about zoos, for that matter, is also risky in this day and age.

“I think most people have this idea that zoos are prisons for animals, the animals are miserable. I had that prejudice. And there is very little fiction about zoos. It’s one of these subjects no one has broached.” So Martel began doing some zoo research, “thinking I’d do it sort of minimally, because zoos are odious and so on, and I came upon some amazing books, obscure books by zoo biologists, and I realized I was completely wrong.” Life of Pi includes a number of, again, fantastic but quite true, stories of zoo animals who, given the chance to escape, don’t. The reader is reminded that animals’ behaviour in the wild is also subject to rules and restrictions. “A biologically sound zoo enclosure,” says Pi, “is just another territory…”

And as to going out on a limb with the faithful, Martel can’t seem to say enough about how fulfilled he was by this project.

“No one writes about religion, really. Contemporary stuff tends to be from the outside, questioning it, loathing it. There’s a thrill to feeling you’re writing about something few people care to write about. I just loved working on this book! Really, really loved working on it.”

Much ventured, much gained. Life of Pi, like its sources, will inspire and endure. mRb

Padma Viswanathan is currently completing her first novel, Thangam. She was a finalist for the 2001 Bronwen Wallace Award for fiction.

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