SOURCE: Fagan, Cary. Review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, by Yann Martel. Quill & Quire 59, no. 4 (April 1993): 22.
[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Fagan offers praise for Martel's experimental style, narrative voice, and touching stories.]
Yann Martel's first collection of stories [The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories] is notable on the one hand for its warm human voice and on the other for a precocious pleasure in experimenting.
The long title story, which won the 1991 Journey Prize, tells of a young man's friendship for another who is dying of AIDS. The unpretentious telling is like a long spiralling descent into sadness and loss. The series of stories about the fictional Roccamatio family that the two friends tell one another to keep despair at bay is a brilliant and ambitious idea that, if not quite fulfilled, is still effective.
The natural voice comes through again in “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton.” This time the narrator, again a young man, is exploring Washington when he stumbles upon a concert in a decrepit theatre given by the Maryland Vietnam War Veterans' Chamber Ensemble. This fascination with the peculiarly human gives much of the energy to Martel's writing and makes it genuinely touching.
The other two stories in the collection show Martel as the young writer stretching his wings, with the result that they read like workshop exercises. Yet even here touching moments occur, showing that Martel's real subject is the emotional side of our lives. Once again the Journey Prize has brought to our attention a writer of promise and already of some accomplishment.
SOURCE: Summers, Merna. “Re-Examining the Facts.” Canadian Forum 72, no. 820 (June 1993): 41-2.
[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Summers compares an earlier version of the title story to a later, revised version which appears in the volume.]
Every few years a new writer comes along who is seen at once to be more than usually exciting, a new talent who may very well redraw our map of reality. It is surprising sometimes how little we need to read before we are able to decide this. Even a single story can do it.
That was the case with Yann Martel, whose second published story won the ＄10,000 Journey Prize two years ago. Reviewing the 1991 Journey Prize Anthology in these pages at that time I wrote:
“The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” is a story of extreme youth and death, and I find it hard to describe just how moving it is. … When I finished reading it, I telephoned a friend, wanting company, but I found that I was incoherent; I simply couldn't tell her what had happened to me. … It is one of the strange things about art that what devastates us also in some way heals us, or at least leads us to where we need to go.
This has become the title story in Martel's new collection of four stories [The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories], and I was looking forward to reading it again. I am not sure how long it took me to realize that something had changed. Martel's story was still good, but it was not the same story I had read before.
What had changed? At first I thought that Martel had made his story longer, and had lost some torque thereby. Finally, I dug out my copy...
(This entire section contains 879 words.)
of theJourney Prize Anthology and discovered that I was both mistaken and not mistaken. The story had been changed, but not in the way I had guessed.
The “facts” in both versions are the same. Two boys of college age, one of them dying of AIDS, invent a game to divert themselves from the grim reality of the illness. They decide to create a story—about a Finnish family of Italian origin, of all things—with each new episode to be based on an actual news event in a different year, which is somehow reflected in the life of one of the “Helsinki Roccamatios”.
As they travel through this century of shame and human degradation, the healthy boy looks for happy events to base his stories on. For the dying boy, the grim stories express his rage at what is happening to him,
The story is told in the voice of the healthy boy, and therein lies the problem. In the earlier version, the reader was always aware of how terribly young these boys are, and part of this awareness came from the narrator's choice of words.
In the new version, the writing has been “improved”. The boy's rash and inexact similes are excised. His verbal contractions are all but gone. I'd, more often than not, has become I would. Word selection is more careful, distinctions are more exactly made. The storyteller's voice has become more staid … and an important element of the story has been weakened.
Reading the two versions together is instructive to anyone who deals with words. We learn how easy it is, by effecting scarcely perceptible changes, to turn a brilliant story into one that is merely good.
The other major story in the collection bears the astonishing title of “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton”.
It describes an event in the life of a 25-year-old student who finds the Vietnam war “nearly folkloric, like the Second World War, the stuff of documentaries and hero movies”. In Washington, D.C., on a visit, he decides to attend a concert “for the socioanthropology of it”, and there hears the work of a composer whom he compares to Mozart, and whom he later discovers is an alcoholic janitor. Martel writes brilliantly about the effect of music on the listener, and his story effectively awakens reflections on the failure of success and the success of failure.
The other stories are not on the same plane as the first two. “Manners of Dying” is composed of perhaps nine different versions of a man's death by hanging, all told in letters written by the same prison official. The reader is being tested. Which facts are reliable here? (A few recur again and again, and the reader becomes very attached to this version of “the truth”.)
The fourth story, “The Mirror Machine”, has some good ingredients in it, but the telling is rather gimmicky.
Yann Martel is a greatly gifted writer. Read his book to encounter one of the most interesting young writers to appear in recent years. But if you want to see Martel at his best, dig up a copy of the Journey Prize Anthology of 1991.
I will be looking forward to his next book, and hoping that he will have learned by then to trust his instincts, and to get some sense of where, exactly, the point is at which editing should stop.
SOURCE: A. C. Review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, by Yann Martel. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4756 (27 May 1994): 21.
[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, the critic contends that all four stories in the volume are enjoyable and moving.]
Yann Martel, is a Quebecois, educated in English, who writes, on the evidence of these four shortish stories [in The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories]—his first published work—like a more compassionate Paul Auster. He explores the emotional and cultural impulse behind creativity but not as a self-conscious postmodern exercise. He sees it rather as an ordinary human activity, believing that we are all constantly creative in our daily lives.
The title-story is about the death of a young man from AIDS. His best friend sits with him over several months while his condition worsens and the two men tell each other invented stories about the Italian Roccamatio family, each tale prompted by a particular event in a year from this century. The friend, our narrator, doesn't tell us the Roccamatio stories, we only get the named events: “1930—The American Clyde Tombaugh discovers the ninth planet of our solar system, Pluto”, “1941—Marshall Pétain institutes Mother's Day”. It is clear that the untold stories about the Roccamatios are not simply analogous to their starting-point; similarly, the AIDS patient's stories have only an indirect relationship to his suffering (he tells a quirky tale when he is near to death). Martel shows how free and yet connected to our history we are when we create, and what creative treasures the dying man is leaving behind as he relinquishes his power of story-telling. All four stories are enjoyable and touching, dealing with a wide range of subjects from a beautiful concerto, to the ways in which a condemned man deals with his final night, to a machine which makes mirrors. These are literary tales by a literary writer, but they have the crucial saving grace of narrative momentum. It is an impressive debut.
SOURCE: Hollingshead, Greg. “Citizen ‘I.’” Quill & Quire 62, no. 4 (April 1996): 1, 28.
[In the following review of Self, Hollingshead maintains that Martel's writing demonstrates a beautiful authenticity.]
Yann Martel is probably best known for “The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” which first appeared in the Malahat Review in 1990 and subsequently in the third Journey Prize Anthology and after that as the title story of Martel's 1993 collection from Knopf. “Helsinki Roccamatios” is a good story, but “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto With One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton,” in the September 1992 Malahat and also included in the Knopf collection, is a better story, and one that more clearly says, This is something new. Certainly in Canada. There have been Clark Blaise and Norman Levine, but as I read him, Martel has more in common with Granta contributors such as Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Auster, and Allan Gurganus. These are writers of fiction whose conventions are so muted, or erased, as to be hardly distinguishable from memoir, or travel narrative, or autobiography; fiction where the “I” is present as a fully intelligent, intellectual, even politically conscious entity, a citizen! More like a real, both-paws-on-the-mouse functioning human being than your usual blinkered and blind-sided fictional creation. Martel, in other words, writes in a way that makes a lot of other fiction look like, well, like fiction.
So why did he call his first novel Self? Not advisable to come across self-conscious about your strong point. That was my first thought. My second: What exactly do I expect from a novel called Self? A cool look at that snaky illusory construct through the eye of the reporter, historian, (auto)biographer; the sort of direct gaze that usual fiction, all caught up with irony and striving selves in their social relations, hardly gives us. To put this metonymically and crudely, the title Self had me expecting deconstructive scenes of solitary masturbation along with the rest of the deconstructed sex.
What did I get? A work of fiction that takes the form of an autobiography of a 30-year-old, from birth to tentative initial recovery from devastating trauma. It is a narrative orchestrated by an outspoken “I” that is candid, intelligent, likable, life-embracing, protean, chatty, smug, and mischievous. A self busy being a self: watching itself, blind to itself. An eating disorder receives a couple of lines. Loss of parents is absorbed quietly. When, at university, the narrator suffers what she calls an “existential crisis,” she says, “But it doesn't make for interesting reading, I'll be the first to admit it,” and later adds, “We all go through it, we all cope with it, or try, so why talk about it?” So she doesn't. This is primarily a self counting its satisfactions in that obsessive-complacent way that selves have. A self hugging itself and spinning round. A self dusting itself off after a spill before soldiering on. There are fine, largely celebratory accounts of earliest childhood memories; of masturbation (yes!) and shitting, a good deal of shitting; of life at a boarding school readers will think they recognize; of university days at a university readers will think they recognize; of the narrator's work on that first unpublished fiction; of trips to Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, South America; of passionate love affairs (of which there are mainly four, one lesbian and three heterosexual—because twice the narrator, for reasons not clear, spontaneously changes sex).
This is an easy book to pick up again after you have to put it down to make yourself something to eat or to get some sleep, because Martel is a bright, amiable, enthusiastic writer with an original, playful mind that he is not afraid to use. If there is a problem, for me it is that the self that dominates the narrative is presented on its own terms, as a self will naturally want to conceive itself. But that is how it is conceived by the author too, because it is viewed by him from the other side of that traumatic experience late in the book that will devastate it. And consequently I found myself waiting, as I read, for the event, the upset, the necessary piece of information, that might account for so apparently untroubled and unvexed and blameless a state of self-driven enthusiasm for almost 300 pages. And when it comes it is both expected and unexpected in the right degrees, and it is truly harrowing, because Martel is a good writer, and yet because the book appears to require it to work, it has the effect more of formal necessity than of the fiction-free authenticity that Yann Martel, when things are working for him, can so beautifully give us.
SOURCE: Hamelin, Christine. “Self and Other.” Canadian Forum 75, no. 854 (November 1996): 43-4.
[In the following review of Self, Hamelin asserts that Martel's narrative combines good storytelling with a genuinely experimental approach, but that the book has a tendency to keep the reader at a distance.]
Self is a Künstlerroman—an artist's novel—whose challenging of conventions generates much vitality. Although it is a fictional autobiography, its unnamed protagonist is, like the author, a writer in his early 30s with diplomat parents. Yet Yann Martel would likely disapprove of any quibbling about genre: Self embraces diversity, shattering all categories.
As a child, the protagonist absorbs the world with openness: “I treated the vacuum cleaner—a distant cousin of the elephant—and the washing machine—a relative of the racoon—with the greatest respect.” Sensitive and intelligent like St-Exupery's Petit Prince, he expounds complex theories about the universe.
Shocked to learn that there are only two genders, and “grief-stricken” that he cannot marry his playmate, he becomes aware of social categories. He must grasp that in French, all things are gendered: trees and wind are masculine, flowers and machines feminine. Throughout the novel, various languages are juxtaposed, reflecting Martel's pluralism.
The evocative descriptions of childhood showcase Martel's original, elegant style. A new tone emerges when, at age seven, the boy sees a large sea turtle that was overturned and left to die. Henceforth his world-view is tainted by an awareness of nihilism.
The adolescent years of the speaker, who struggles at an Ontario boarding school, are also poignantly described, though his preoccupation with acne and masturbation is occasionally overwhelming. The boy's tragic loss of his parents engenders a life-long quest: he seeks connection with the world, a connection that had seemed natural in childhood, before he recognized the inevitable separation between Self and Other.
At 18, he wakes up one morning and discovers he is a woman. At the novel's close, the speaker re-becomes a man. These spontaneous gender changes represent psychological fluidity and show that gender, like language, is an external form that need not determine identity. In keeping with current theories, Martel suggests that identity is a self-made construct. Remarkably, because the speaker's voice remains constant, the inexplicable gender changes seem plausible.
The speaker travels through Europe exploring her sexuality and then enrols at a small Ontario university, where she begins a novel. Regardless of whether she is capturing a moment through writing or experiencing sexual intimacy, she always seeks profound connection with otherness.
In his innocence, the boy, who always checked the strainer for “bereft” noodles and ate them tenderly, developed an elaborate theory: watching television, he saw an enlarged eye, and then a shot of silvery darting fish. He concluded that fish live in our eyes, determining their colour, and feed on our love. In moments of love, fish rise to the surface and are visible. He/she carries this theory forever, a Wordsworthian spot of time posited against the fragmented adult world.
Martel enjoys writing about sex and does so convincingly. Yet the speaker usually has sex hoping to find “fishy” eyes. The various partners—as a man and a woman, the speaker has encounters with both genders—are unable to provide true union. One speaks a foreign language, one wants only friendship, one already has a family and one insists on a clandestine relationship.
Attempts to connect through writing are also largely fruitless. She constructs her novel by covering her walls with index cards containing ideas, reminders, words, themes. The project aborts because there is no unifying whole. However, after spending years in the self, in loneliness, she meets Tito and, with him, creates a home in Montreal. She finally achieves the connection she had sought since her parents' death, or perhaps since seeing the violated turtle. The two travel together; she begins a new novel and becomes pregnant.
A violent rape shatters her world, suggesting the necessary impermanence of happiness. Yet the scene is not sufficiently affecting. Although the speaker's experiences since birth, from his first “caca” to his first lover, from her first menstruation to her first novel, have been shared, the reader is held at bay, appreciating Martel's magnificent creation rather than empathizing fully with the speaker. Perhaps to write about such personal matters, such a private world, Martel had to impose some distance, and that distance is felt by the reader.
A thorough investigation of subjectivity inevitably leads to a certain self-centredness. Martel's sometimes flippant tone and the rather superior air of his protagonist occasionally threaten to override the energy of his writing.
Self is a moving, entertaining novel about a Petit Prince, an open-minded quester in a fragmented, overly organized world. An intelligent, culturally rich work, it combines good story-telling with a genuinely experimental approach. Martel, already lauded for his short stories, has written an energetic novel that in no way reads like a first attempt.
SOURCE: Ferraro, Julian. “Male-Female Experiences.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4886 (22 November 1996): 24.
[In the following review, Ferraro observes that the narration in Self rejects conventional notions of plot and character to focus on experience, judging the narrative voice in the book as often strained, pretentious, and dull.]
Self is the fictional autobiography of a young Canadian writer, from the first remembered experience to the age of thirty. In the course of the novel, the self of the title undergoes two changes of sex, from male to female and back again, has various relationships, suffers loss and terrible brutalization, writes, and does a fair amount of travelling. The story unfolds chronologically but in a random, accumulative manner, the absence of structure emphasized by the stagey imbalance between the book's first “chapter” of 329 pages and its second of forty-three words. Just as the central events of the story—the alternations of the sex of the narrator—thwart the reader's expectations of sexual identity and continuity, so the conventions of traditional “masculine” narrative development are challenged by a more circular, open-ended, “feminine” unfolding. The result is a novel which rejects plot and character and focuses instead on experience; on the interaction of an evolving individual consciousness with the random contingencies of existence.
Things begin unpromisingly enough, with the relation of an anecdote more like a textbook example of Freudian theories of infant sexuality than an individual experience, in which the narrator proudly produces “a magnificent log of excrement” for his mother—“Pleasure given, pleasure had, I sensed.” Indeed, the early sections are marked by an annoyingly knowing gloss on the events of childhood. Yann Martel goes to some lengths to paint a picture of the whimsical originality of his young Self as he encounters various aspects of experience for the first time, but too often the result is strained, pretentious and thoroughly unengaging: “when I discovered the washing of laundry. Staring down into the toss and turmoil of clothes being cleaned mechanically is the closest I have come to belonging to a church, and was my introduction to museums.” It is testament to Martel's qualities as a writer that the book recovers at all from such a beginning—even then it does so only fitfully.
A recurring element in the descriptions of the older Self's writing activities are outlines of ideas for novels, plays and short stories. The first of these is described in the following terms: “I had an idea and I had drawn an awkward but detailed sketch of the set and stage. In considering these two things, the wordy idea in my head and the plotless sketch, I felt impelled to write the thing out, to people that stage.” A similar process seems to have been at work in the creation of Self itself. At the heart of the book is an interesting idea well realized—the changes in sex, each one following a particularly traumatic event (the death of the teenage boy's parents in an air-crash and the vicious rape of the young woman). Surrounding this, however, is a mass of filler that is often simply dull. The abiding impression of Self is of a potentially excellent short story overwhelmed by a bloated meandering travelogue. The narrator's violent rape by a neighbour—the most powerful piece of writing in the book, in which one of Martel's characteristic stylistic devices, the bifurcation of the narrative into two columns running down the page, action matched by internal thought or sensation, is used to effect—becomes almost gratuitous, its focus blurred by tedious trivia.
Throughout the novel, Martel attempts to create situations in which experiences and relationships are revealed in a fresh light, thanks to the alternation of the sex of the narrator. The confusion of gender with graphic depictions of sexual activity; alternately lesbian, homosexual and heterosexual, creates a powerful impression of the contact with “otherness” implicit in all sexual encounters. The precocious and annoying infant does develop into a sympathetic and unusual adult. The plotless narrative does complement the directionlessness of most of the characters, but too often the combination results in writing that, while occasionally comic or “bittersweet” (the verdict of the dust-jacket), is too often simply boring. Yann Martel is a talented writer, as the collection of short stories, The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1994) revealed. However, anyone expecting a fulfilment of the promise shown by the earlier book will be disappointed by Self.
SOURCE: Whitlock, Nathan. Review of The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Quill & Quire 67, no. 8 (August 2001): 22-3.
[In the following review of The Life of Pi, Whitlock contends that the main body of the novel is exhilarating, gripping, and wonderful, but observes that the narrative framework of the story is superfluous.]
It's impossible to read Yann Martel's audacious, exhilarating, frustrating second novel without wondering what the hell happened. The premise of Life of Pi vibrates with promise. A family living in a small corner of India decides to resettle in Winnipeg in 1977. The family ran a small municipal zoo, and they opt to travel to North America on the same ship that carries a number of the animals that are relocating to zoos in the U.S. The ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific, and the lone human survivor, young Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel, finds himself in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and, most significantly, an adult male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The book's middle section, which describes the 227 days Pi and Richard Parker spend aboard the lifeboat, might be the most gripping 200 pages in recent Canadian fiction. It also stands up against some of Martel's more obvious influences: Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the novels of H. G. Wells, certain stretches of Moby-Dick. The long scene in which Pi and Richard Parker encounter a massive, floating, carnivorous island rivals the best inventions of Wells. What's more astonishing is that the reader never doubts the plausibility of Martel's creation.
Most astonishing, however, is that Martel felt he needed to justify this story with a superfluous narrative framework. The novel's long first section has a jumbled, halting pace. Pi's long dissertation on the fundamental conservatism of wild animals—they much prefer order and stasis to freedom and change, he insists—is very funny, as well as crucial to understanding his later survival, but the side-theme of Pi's triple conversion to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam feels stitched in from another story. The conceit of the narrative being told by the “real” Pi Patel to a Yann Martel-ish writer is a fussy anachronism, while the third section is an unsubtle epilogue, full of repetition and rough tugging at the book's already amply demonstrated themes.
Yann Martel has written a wonderful second novel, but one that is marooned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the middle of Life of Pi.
SOURCE: King, Francis. “A Ghastly Crew.” Spectator 288, no. 9067 (18 May 2002): 43.
[In the following review, King describes The Life of Pi as an extraordinary novel of remarkable originality.]
The cover of this novel [Life of Pi] makes it clear how difficult it is to define it. ‘Hints of The Old Man of the Sea, the magic realism of Amado and Marquez and the absurdity of Beckett.’ ‘Like a more compassionate Paul Auster,’ ‘Reminiscent of Italo Calvino.’ Reading of all these similarities between Yann Martel, widely known only in his native Canada, and these world-famous authors, many a bookshop browser may well exclaim, ‘Wow! This is terrific!’ and rush to make a purchase. But the effect on me was the exact opposite. If a writer is so busy being like other writers, does he have any time to be himself? However, I was totally misled. Thankfully, this is a book of sometimes perplexing, often disconcerting but always remarkable originality.
The first of its three sections, some hundred pages in length, is so sunny in tone that the horror of what follows in the last two sections is even more shocking. The story of Pi, narrated by Pi himself, begins in Pondicherry, where his Indian father runs the zoo from which, still a schoolboy, Pi acquires the knowledge of zoology so useful to him in his subsequent ordeal. Despite constant bickering with his elder brother, his is a happy life. It is also one in which, always conscious of the presence of God, he takes to heart Gandhi's statement, ‘All religions are true’ and so comes simultaneously to embrace Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.
Fearful of the political turmoil in India in the Seventies, Pi's father suddenly decides to move his family to Canada. He sells off some of his animals to zoos in India and some to zoos abroad. Many of those sold to zoos abroad join the family on a Japanese cargo ship for the voyage across the Pacific. A few days later—whether because of a collision, a storm, some interior defect or an explosion is never certain—the ship disintegrates and sinks. Pi, the sole human survivor, finds himself on a lifeboat with only a hyena, an orang-utan, a zebra and a Bengal tiger for companions. Soon after they have drifted off across the seemingly empty Pacific, the hyena has killed the zebra, the orang-utan the hyena, and the Bengal tiger the orang-utan. To avert a similar fate in the jaws of the tiger, Pi has to use both his natural resourcefulness and the knowledge of animal psychology that he acquired while helping in his father's zoo.
Tormented by the elements, hunger and thirst, boy and animal maintain an uneasy truce through a journey as phantasmagoric as the Ancient Mariner's. Eventually, they reach a small island. But the island, at first view a paradise, turns out to be a place of nightmare, infested with tree-dwelling rodents, fish-eating algae and carnivorous trees. Is this a narrative, the reader keeps asking himself, of what really happened or of what happened in the mind of a boy maddened by fever, terror and grief?
It is a strength, not a weakness, of this extraordinary novel that, when boy and tiger at last reach the seaboard of Mexico, that question still remains unanswered. Two Japanese investigators, one a representative of the shipping company and one of the Ministry of Transport, are incredulous that a boy and a tiger could have cohabited in such amazing circumstances and challenge the account. Pi then produces a totally different one, far shorter but even more terrible. In this, he survives the shipwreck not along with four animals but with a French cook, a Chinese sailor, and his mother. The cook cuts off the sailor's leg, broken by the jump into the lifeboat, and so causes his death. He then eats the sailor's body. Later, he also kills Pi's mother. Pi in turns kills him and eats him. If this is the ‘real’ story, then the previous one is merely a vast, increasingly horrific metaphor produced by Pi for a truth that would otherwise be unbearable. In this metaphor, Pi has transformed the Taiwanese sailor into the zebra, the cook into the hyena, and his mother into the orang-utan. He has transformed himself, with his newly awakened feral instinct for survival at whatever the cost, into the tiger.
Apart from its intensely vivid descriptions of Pi's odyssey, this is a novel rich in incidental treasures of thought and style. Two or three paragraphs brilliantly convey what it is to feel abject fear—‘Every part of you … falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.’ A few pages carry a formidable argument for the retention of zoos, with the conclusion: ‘Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you?’ Canada is described as being ‘inhabited by compassionate, intelligent people with bad hairdos’; the lion's face as looking ‘like the wings of a butterfly', with an expression ‘vaguely old and Chinese’.
Here is a writer with a talent as fabulous as the tale that he—and his Pi—have to tell.
SOURCE: Lin, Francie. “Floating on Faith.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 June 2002): 7.
[In the following review of The Life of Pi, Lin judges Martel as an original and powerful storyteller, but feels the novel as a whole is uneven in quality.]
Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi is the literary version of a large, friendly dog; hardly has it committed some mild offense than it rebounds with such enthusiasm, impishness and charm that one promptly forgives it. The book concerns the life of Piscine Molitor Patel (self-christened Pi), an Indian boy growing up in Pondicherry in the 1970s. Pi's father is the director of the zoo at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden, and the family lives within the idyllic, hothouse peace of the zoo grounds until at last, in 1977, the political situation in India forces them to sell off their animals and move to Canada. On their way to Toronto, their ship—a Japanese cargo ship carrying, among other things, a Bengal tiger from the Pondicherry zoo—sinks, and all members of the Patel family, excluding Pi, are lost at sea.
A pocket summary of Life of Pi doesn't quite do the book justice, however, because despite its constant episodes of tragedy and suffering, the story is written with a lightness and humor that gives it the quality of a fairy tale. Consider the landscape of Pi's religious life, for instance, which Martel paints with the gently exaggerated proportions of a fable: “There are three hills within Munnar … on each stood a Godhouse. The hill on the right … had a Hindu temple high on its side; the hill in the middle, further away, held up a mosque; while the hill on the left was crowned with a Christian church.”
Each mountain has its guru, and in time Pi conquers each, becoming a practicing Catholic, Hindu and Muslim, fending off the disapproval of his priest, his pandit and his imam through the sheer force of his own faith. “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” he tells his mystified parents, and continues unshaken in his prayers toward Mecca and his intention to be baptized in the Catholic Church.
Occasionally, Martel's wit gets the better of him and turns his prose merely annoying and coy (“Why, Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise,” Pi notes upon first seeing a Muslim at prayer. “Hot-weather yoga for Bedouins. Asanas without sweat, heaven without strain”), but these moments are few and far between. This is especially true once Pi, along with the Bengal tiger, becomes stranded at sea on a lifeboat, where both parties survive for 227 days.
At this point, Martel's remarkable gift for storytelling asserts itself, and there one encounters page after page of images and observations riveting in their precision and insight. On lightning: “The water was shot through with what looked like white roots; briefly, a great celestial tree stood in the ocean.” On the killing of a dorado: “[It] did a most extraordinary thing as it died: it began to flash all kinds of colors in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death.” On time: “I survived because I made a point of forgetting. My story started on a calendar day … and ended on a calendar day … but in between there was no calendar … Time is an illusion that only makes us pant. I survived because I forgot even the very notion of time.”
It is a testament to Martel's talent that his narrative never drags despite the fact that the movement of time in Life of Pi is almost undetectable. All incidents take place in a kind of vacuum, and in the hands of a lesser craftsman, they would seem scattershot and random. What draws us on is not plot in any chronological sense but rather the profound, infectious sense of wonder that runs the length of the book. Life's peculiar, slightly dreamlike cast eventually carries the reader to the last of Pi's trials, a brief sojourn on an island floating, apparently unmoored, in the middle of the sea. In a few short pages, Martel sketches a cankered paradise that, in its quiet horror, rivals the best of dystopian fiction.
Equally haunting is the aftermath of Pi's ordeal, the surprise of which shouldn't be ruined here. Suffice to say that the ending contradicts the statement, made twice in the book's introduction, that Life of Pi is “a story to make you believe in God.” Like Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, it is instead a story to make you believe in the soul-sustaining power of fiction and its human creators, and in the original power of storytellers like Martel.
SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “Guess Who's for Dinner.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5180 (19 July 2002): 25.
[In the following mixed review of The Life of Pi, Kaveney argues that the discussions of religious issues within the novel are unconvincing.]
Sometimes, the best part of a novel is not the elaborate constructions which go to create a plausible fictional world, but the single mad sentence that might be used to pitch the screenplay in Hollywood. In the case of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, the thing that makes the book memorable is not the overly cute, bordering on patronizing, narrative of how his hero Pi came to take his name, adopt many religions and grow up in Pondicherry as the son of a zoo-keeper. It is the story of how he manages to survive for eight-and-a-half months in an open boat in the Pacific in the company of an adult Bengal tiger, keeping both his sanity and all of his organs.
Surrounding this solid core of events is rather more in the way of authenticating narrative than is perhaps desirable. We get Martel back-packing in India; his encounter with Pi Patel's uncle, who tells him of a story that will convince him, and allegedly us, of the existence of God; Martel's meetings with Pi and the chutneys with which Pi delights his palate; Pi's musings on his later career and how the experiences we are still waiting to hear about changed his life. Above all, we get the account of his childhood, an account which replicates not so much lived Indian experience as read Indian novels. Martel is a gifted pasticheur, but there are times when his impersonation risks dating as badly as Peter Sellers.
Pi's full name is “Piscine”, and he takes the mathematical symbol as his nickname rather than being called after body functions by his schoolmates; Martel is not above a certain laboured cuteness. His father runs a zoo—this sets our young hero up with a lot of knowledge he will need in the later part of the book, but also involves some jejune meditations on humanity's relationship with animals, as well as a profusion of lyrical passages about fur, feather and flower—the zoo is sited in a botanical garden. Much of all of this is luminously written, but it holds up the story.
The cargo ship carrying Pi, his family and a few of their animals to a new life in Canada sinks, and Pi finds himself adrift with a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and the tiger. Rapidly, the animals consume each other and Pi is left as the tiger's next meal—his only option is to tame the brute with whistles, sea-sickness and fish. All of this is imagined in detail and with a sense of the sheer terror of coming face-to-face with a great beast. Aside from a few ineffective moments—an encounter with a sinister floating island in particular—this part of the book has the excitement that is one of the things we read fiction for: not for comedies of manners alone, but for an evocation of the unfamiliar or the barely imaginable.
However, when it comes to the book's purported message—that in some sense we will be persuaded of the necessity of religious faith—Martel confuses assertion with proof. It is his father's lectures about practicalities that keep Pi alive, not his cultivation of all the religious available to him; the book's hostility towards agnosticism never amounts to a case for godliness. In a final interview with marine insurers, Pi concocts a superficially more plausible narrative of cannibalism and madness; like us, they prefer the story of the boy in a boat with a tiger. But an aesthetic preference it remains—not an objective proof; Yann Martel has constructed a powerful fable, not, fortunately, a Holy Book.
SOURCE: Skidelsky, William. “Novel Thoughts.” New Statesman 131, no. 4598 (29 July 2002): 39.
[In the following review of The Life of Pi, Skidelsky offers high praise for Martel's vivid descriptions and imaginative, compelling narration.]
In an interview a few years ago, Julian Barnes explained why it had taken him eight years to complete his semi-autobiographical first novel, Metroland. For too long, he felt constrained by the facts of his own life as they had happened. Even though he was writing a novel, he still didn't feel entirely free to invent. Only on realising that the truth was his to embellish had the novel finally taken shape. So plausibly rendered were Barnes's inventions, in fact, that several French journalists wrongly assumed that a scene in the novel, in which the protagonist loses his virginity in Paris, was true. …
How refreshing … to read another novel with a nautical theme, but one that avoids the prosaic altogether. Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a riotous imaginative excursion, the account of 16-year-old Pi—the son of a zookeeper—who emigrates from his home in India to Canada in a lifeboat, accompanied by a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Royal Bengal tiger. The reason for this peculiar mode of transport is that the rest of Pi's family—along with their other animals—have drowned in a shipwreck, leaving Pi and his crew to fend for themselves in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Naturally, it is an entirely improbable scenario, but this does not matter, because the telling is so compelling. Unlike [Colin] Thubron and [Philip] Marsden, Martel has allowed his imagination free rein. Who, after all, needs plausibility when you've got close-quarter descriptions of ferocious animals tearing into one another (“The zebra was being eaten alive from inside”; “There was a noise of organic crunching as windpipe and spinal cord were crushed”)?
There are many vivid descriptions, and the whole novel is infused with such childlike exuberance that the odd clumsy expression (“I didn't have pity to spare for long for the zebra”) is easy to forgive.
SOURCE: Innes, Charlotte. “Robinson Crusoe, Move Over.” Nation 275, no. 6 (19 August 2002): 25-9.
[In the following review, Innes discusses the themes of religious faith and doubt in The Life of Pi.]
If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he'd be charismatic, funny and convert all the nonbelievers. He baits his readers with serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion, but he makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled, that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can't help but be captured by his prose.
That's largely why I took such pleasure in Life of Pi, Martel's wonderful second novel, which playfully reworks the ancient sea voyage, castaway themes of classics like Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Melville's Moby-Dick and (in some of its more fantastical aspects) Homer's The Odyssey, to explore the role of religion in a highly physical world. What's more, it's a religious book that makes sense to a nonreligious person. Although its themes are serious and there are moments of awful graphic violence and bleak despair, it is above all a book about life's absurdities that makes one laugh out loud on almost every page, with its quirky juxtapositions, comparisons, metaphors, Borgesian puzzles, postmodern games and a sense of fun that reflects the hero's sensual enjoyment of the world. Although Martel pays tribute to the past by using the typical castaway format (episodic narrative, focus on details of survival, moments of shocking violence and reflections on God and nature), his voice, and the fact that his work is more fantastic, more scientifically sound and funnier than that of his predecessors, infuses the genre with brilliant new life. If this century produces a classic work of survival literature, Martel's novel is surely a contender.
Life of Pi is the unlikely story of a 16-year-old Indian boy, Pi Patel, adrift in a boat with a hungry tiger after the ship carrying his zookeeper father, mother, brother and many animals sinks in the middle of their journey from India to Canada. (It's the mid-1970s and Pi's father decides to emigrate after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi starts jailing her enemies and suspending civil liberties.) Pi is at once a Hindu, Christian and Muslim (echoes of the pacific Mahatma Gandhi here) who believes that all religions are about “love.” But having grown up among animals, he's also practical and grounded. Early in the book, his three religious teachers meet, and Pi gets his “introduction to interfaith dialogue,” a big argument that ends only when he is asked for his opinion. He quotes Gandhi, “All religions are true,” adding, “I just want to love God,” which floors them all. Then he goes out with his parents for ice cream. Most of the rest of the book is a challenge to Pi's simple faith, as this sweet yet unsentimental hero experiences a situation where, it would seem, survival is everything. Aside from the detailed descriptions of hands-on survival techniques that almost rival Ishmael's whaling lore in Moby-Dick, the book poses the questions: Can faith survive in the face of doubt and suffering? Can the love of God and one's fellows remain pure in an angry, violent world?
Despair sets in from the beginning. Not only does Pi lose his parents, but he is facing life on the ocean wave with a tiger (named Richard Parker), a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena. Pi watches them kill each other, with Richard Parker finishing off the hyena. The boat is littered with animal carcasses. As the days go by, Pi, a vegetarian, learns how to kill with his bare hands, batter turtles to death and eat uncooked flesh. He weeps. He is “dumb with pain and horror.” But he survives, marking his territory with his urine, as animals do, to keep Richard Parker at bay, feeding him and finally teaching the tiger (by using a whistle) that he, Pi, is master here.
It's true that his three faiths recede to a whisper on the boat. He confesses that it is Richard Parker, and the practical matter of avoiding being eaten by him, that gives him “purpose,” even “peace” and perhaps “wholeness,” and thus keeps him alive. “If he died, I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. … He pushed me to go on living.” Pi keeps up with his religious rituals, but he finds his faith wavering. In one funny scene, he yells out his beliefs to make them more real. “I would touch the turban I had made with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, ‘THIS IS GOD'S HAT!’” Then he points at Richard Parker and says, “THIS IS GOD'S CAT!” The boat is “GOD'S ARK!” The sea, “GOD'S WIDE ACRES!” The sky, “GOD'S EAR!” But, he says, “God's hat was always unravelling,” and “God's ear didn't seem to be listening.”
You might say he's trying to persuade himself. But it's clear that he continues to appreciate the beauty of the sea and sky, and the sparse life around him, in which, as a Hindu, he sees his connection to God. There are wonderful poetic descriptions of the fish around the boat as a little city, of Richard Parker's beauty and of a dorado fish that, as it dies, begins to “flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death.” Even when his journey is “nothing but grief, ache and endurance,” it is “natural,” he says, that he “should turn to God.”
But religion is only one element of the book's exploration of faith. Martel is also interested in the faith of his readers. He wants them to believe his story. He has his narrator pose a larger, Keatsian “beauty is truth” argument against the glorification of reason, “that fool's gold for the bright.” It's as if he were suggesting that storytelling is a kind of religious experience because it helps us understand the world in a more profound way than a just-the-facts approach (or by implication, dogma, fundamentalism and literalism). Two passages that some reviewers have picked out as the least convincing (for their lack of literal accuracy!), I find illustrate Martel's attempt to show the power of storytelling at its best. Fantastic, yes, but utterly convincing. The first is Pi's encounter with a blind, cannibalistic Frenchman whom Pi runs into at the exact moment he too has gone blind for lack of nourishment. Their obsessive conversation about food is one of the funniest and most farcical moments in the book. The second is Pi's sojourn on a flesh-eating island, which is one of the most chilling symbolic illustrations of evil I have read. (If the pious Swiss Family Robinson finds utopia, the religious Pi finds dystopia!)
Good postmodernist that he is, Martel wants to use the very telling of the tale—multiple narrators, a playful fairytale quality (“once upon a time” and “happy ending” are mentioned in passing), realistically presented events that may be hallucinations or simply made up—to push at the limits of what's believable, yet still convince the reader of his literary, not literal, veracity. He wants to prove that it's possible to remain curious about and connected to the world, yet to accept that there are always going to be aspects of life (and literature) that remain mysterious.
Pi's doubts about his faith are mirrored by the seeds of doubt Martel sows in the mind of the reader throughout the narrative. Every moment of certainty is undercut by the potential for disbelief, and that's when Martel seems to ask: Am I convincing you now? He sifts the story through various narrators, beginning with an author-narrator that at first one thinks is Martel himself but is only Martel-like, introducing the story as if it were true. Martel has said in interviews that some of this information is factually accurate. Like his narrator, he was trying to write a novel about Portugal that wouldn't come alive when he got the idea for Life of Pi on a trip to India. Martel also briefly acknowledges his special debt to Brazilian Jewish writer Moacyr Scliar, whose novella Max and the Cats also has a hero who survives the sinking of a ship filled with zoo animals and spends days at sea in a boat with a large cat, in this case a jaguar. Scliar's is the mini-version that Martel fleshes out with more lyrical language and the fruits of zoological research.
But there reality stops. There's the whiff of an old-fashioned quest or allegorical tale in the introduction, for the Martel-like narrator first learns the story from Francis Adirubasamy, a family friend of Pi's, who tells him that Pi's story will make him “believe in God.” And he plays with the reader's sense of reality when he has Adirubasamy talk about Pi as “the main character” whom the narrator proceeds to track down in Canada. And just how believable is Pi? Now in his 40s, Pi apologizes for his memory and tells the story as a series of out-of-sequence events—jumping back and forth between his early childhood, his teenage years and his time at sea. He can barely remember what his mother looks like, but he appears able to recall whole conversations from his childhood. He even asks the narrator to “tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less.” (He does.) One begins to wonder if Pi made up Richard Parker. Despite his knowledge that people anthropomorphize animals because of their “obsession” with putting themselves “at the centre of everything,” Pi seems disproportionately haunted by the fact that when the boat hits Mexico, Richard Parker takes off without a backward glance. Perhaps the loss of the tiger symbolizes the greater loss of his family, or of his own innocence. Perhaps Pi invented the tiger to keep himself sane. The reader is left to decide.
In a final test of the reader's faith in the narrative, Martel has Pi tell an alternate, allegedly more believable version of the story at the end—lacking not only Richard Parker but also the humor, poetry and detail of the tiger story—to please a couple of doubting Japanese shipping officials. He asks them which they think is the “better” story. Of course, the tiger story is the finer, more thoughtful literary creation and therefore (Martel suggests) has a truth more lasting than the second, more journalistic version, with its “dry, yeastless factuality.”
Even if one accepts the twists and turns of the narrative, one faces the further challenge of tracking down clues hidden in a warren of allusions for more definitive answers to questions about Pi's religious faith, and whether the narrator (and the reader) will be persuaded of the story's original premise that it will make one believe in God. That symbolism is important in this book is made clear at first by the most obvious symbol of Pi's name, self-chosen because it's the short version of his real name Piscine (after a family friend's favorite Parisian swimming pool), and he is inevitably called “Pissing” by classmates. Nothing could be grittier. In contrast, Pi is like π, what mathematicians call an “irrational number,” that is, 3.14 if rounded off, but with endlessly unfolding decimal places if carried out. Martel couples this mysterious abstraction with a concrete image—“And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge”—to show that, as a boy, Pi is in harmony with things as they are as well as with his sense of the unknowable.
That Pi's attitude to religion may have changed after his ordeal is buried in the hidden symbolism hinted at by Pi's college studies in religion and zoology, described on the opening page as if to emphasize their importance as a key to the story. (This is after the lifeboat comes to shore in Mexico, and Pi goes to Canada to start a new life.) His specialties are the sixteenth-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria and the sluggish three-toed sloth (symbol of the Trinity?) whose miraculous capacity to stay alive, he says, “reminded me of God.” (An echo of his own survival, perhaps? A hint that God seems more elusive these days?) More important, Luria's cabalistic ideas may hold the key to Pi's experience at sea. His philosophy (Luria thought the secrets of the universe lay in numbers) echoes the symbolism of π, and the formula for figuring out the dimension of a circle and its radius (connecting perimeter and center). Luria believed that God's light contracted from the center of the universe, purging itself of evil elements, leaving an empty space (a circle) in which human life developed. But God also sent down a ray of light (like a radius) so that the few remaining divine sparks could reconnect with Him. To achieve this fusion with God, and by implication eliminate evil from the world, Luria believed, people must live an ethical life. The original divine contraction is called variously tzimtzum, zimzum or simsum. It's no coincidence that Martel called the sinking ship Tsimtsum. Thus Pi at sea was experiencing his own void (or withdrawal of God), in which elements of evil fight with the instinct to do good. Richard Parker saved his sanity, and Pi's goodness kept Richard Parker (and perhaps his own faith) alive. By introducing this strain of mystical Jewish thought, Martel not only further illustrates Pi's contention that all religions are essentially the same in that they stem from love but he also uses mysticism to underscore the profound ways in which literature can present life's truths. Skeptics, however, might see Pi's study of Luria as a move away from his earlier, purer faith toward a more structured mysticism. That would explain his comment at the end of the book, when he confesses his need for “the harmony of order.”
Though one can read Life of Pi just for fun, trying to figure out Pi's relationship to God makes one feel a bit like the castaway hero wrestling slippery fish into his lifeboat for dinner. An idea twists and turns, glittering and gleaming, slaps you in the face with its tail and slips away. Did the story really happen? Does it make one believe in God? What kind of God? Early on the narrator says, “This story has a happy ending.” But Pi also tells his interviewer, “I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful,” which suggests a man with at least some conflict on his mind. On the other hand, Martel may also be suggesting that work is less important to Pi than God and family—the narrator gives us glimpses of Pi's shrine-filled house and his loving relationship with his wife, son and daughter. However, when Pi is showing him family pictures, the narrator notes, “A smile every time, but his eyes tell another story.” I believe Martel's point is that doubt inevitably accompanies faith. But the opposite explanation, that after Pi's life-threatening experiences his faith is a mere prop for his anxiety, might work just as well.
Does it matter that the answer to all questions in this novel is both yes and no? One answer comes in the form of Pi's question moments after the ship has sunk and he's sitting in the lifeboat, bewailing the loss of his family and God's silence on the topic: “Why can't reason give greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in an answer? Why such a vast net if there's so little fish to catch?” And that, of course, is the nature of faith. One can't argue it through, one just believes. Faith in God (as the younger Pi sees it) “is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love.” It's also “hard to love,” Pi adds, when faced with adversity. The same might be true of a good novel, as readers are taken to the edge of their understanding by something new. If the reader lets go of preconceptions, the experience can be liberating and exciting. Martel may be sowing seeds of uncertainty about God, but there's no doubt that he restores one's faith in literature.
SOURCE: Martel, Yann, and Sabine Sielke. “‘The Empathetic Imagination’: An Interview with Yann Martel.” Canadian Literature 177 (summer 2003): 12-32.
[In the following interview, conducted in Berlin in 2002, Martel discusses his writing process, the central themes of his fiction, and his literary influences.]
To date, Yann Martel has published three books: The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993), a collection of short stories awarded the Journey Prize; Self (1996) shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award; and Life of Pi (2001), his second novel, which received the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2001 and was nominated for the 2001 Governor General's Award for Fiction. The 2002 Booker Prize for Life of Pi places Martel on par with V. S. Naipaul, Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie, J. M. Coetzee, Kingsley Amis, Keri Hulme, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood.
Martel was born in 1963 in Salamanca, Spain to Canadian parents. His father's postings as a diplomat took the family all over the globe, and Martel grew up in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, France, Ontario and Mexico. He has continued to travel as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India. He studied philosophy at Trent University and held various odd jobs—tree planting, dishwashing, working as a security guard—before he began to write. While he now generally makes his home in Montreal, he followed an invitation of the German Academic Exchange Service and Samuel Fischer Publishers to spend the academic year 2002/2003 as the Samuel Fischer Professor of Literature in the Department of Comparative Literature, Free University of Berlin, where he offered a seminar entitled “Meeting the Other: The Animal in Western Literature.” I had the pleasure of meeting Yann Martel in Bonn and Berlin in late 2002. We talked about empathy and imagination, otherness, religion, violence, and other subjects. The interview was conducted at Martel's residence in Berlin Charlottenburg.
[Sielke]: How does it feel to be so famous all of a sudden? What was the most significant effect on your life?
[Martel]: You don't feel fame the way you feel hunger or thirst. It's more abstract. So far fame has been a deluge of e-mails, of mail in general. I realized how unusual my situation was when I had a twenty-minute conversation with the Prime Minister of Canada. He called me to congratulate me. When things like that happen to you, rather than you being elevated, the whole situation is lowered to you, which doesn't mean that you don't think you're not worthy of it, but it suddenly becomes normal and human. The man speaking to you is no longer that famous, powerful, inaccessible man far above you; it's just a voice on the phone, a chatty, human voice that sounds so familiar because you hear it every day on the news. Also, let's not forget that right now I'm in Germany. I'm a foreign writer who has won a foreign prize. If I were in Canada, if I lived in the UK, it might have been different: people might have recognized me on the street or I might have received even more requests for interviews. There's been a certain buffer created by the fact that I am in Berlin. Occasionally I think: “Hey, I won the Booker Prize, like Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize, like V. S. Naipaul won the Booker Prize, like William Golding won the Booker Prize,” and I'm thrilled. But most of the time I forget it. I still think of myself as a struggling writer. And that's not an act. It's not easy being a writer. The world makes you feel that it doesn't need another novel or another painting or another piece of music. You create in the face of indifference, and I say that and I've had an easy time of it. I know of many artists who struggle and struggle and struggle. You can't forget the fear of failure and oblivion overnight. So I still think of myself as being a struggling writer and then I think, “Wait a minute … I won the Booker Prize. I can't be struggling!”
It's also nice to know that my book is being read. I'm getting lots of letters. Letters from total strangers, letters from friends, letters from people in high places, from people I haven't heard of in years. It's always a bit of a surprise because these letters are addressed to me, when in fact they should be addressed to the book. It's the book that they liked. The author is somewhere else, something else. But it's nice to receive these letters, to get the attention. And the money is nice. It makes for a more comfortable life.
You are quoted as having said that you write simple books. What do you mean by that? Does that phrase really apply? And is the apparent simplicity of Life of Pi the reason for its success?
That's what I meant: apparent simplicity. I meant that stylistically the book is simple. First of all, most of my stories are quite linear. There are parallel stories, but parallel still means two lines. So, I would say that in terms of narrative, my stories are simple and classical. You have characters and events that move in a straightforward, linear way. There's no stylistic trickery, no impenetrable style. The language is uncomplicated, and the way of telling the story is not convoluted. Something happens and you live through the consequences, whether it's a sex change, AIDS, or a shipwreck. But you're right: it's an apparent simplicity. At one point you realize that with these simple little strokes I am creating a more complex picture.
You already made reference to one of your other books, namely your first novel Self, so let's talk a bit about your earlier work. Your first book is The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, a collection of short fiction whose title narrative was turned into a movie. How did you come to writing and why short fiction and not poetry? And what are “the facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios”?
The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios is a collection of four long stories. In fact, the title story is more properly speaking a novella. I started with short stories because I was learning how to write, and short stories seemed more manageable than novels, even though they are as difficult to write as novels. In fact, if anything, short stories are less forgiving than novels. Nonetheless they are shorter and do not require strong characterization, just plot with an epiphany at the end, some sort of illumination. And to be honest, I started writing without having the faintest idea what I was doing. I certainly wasn't thinking in terms of literary categories: “This is a short story. This is a novel.” As I was learning how to write fiction, I wrote a lot of stuff, some of it short, that could properly be called short stories, some of it longer, novellas, and eventually novels. I was experimenting. Now I only write novels and I'm comfortable with that. I haven't written a short story in years. I only think in terms of novels. I don't find novels at all daunting. Like any big thing you have to do, you break it down into smaller parts and then it becomes quite manageable.
As to what the stories are about: I tend not to be interested in autobiography, for two reasons. In a general way, I don't find the ego that interesting. I would rather have a normal character face extraordinary circumstances than an extraordinary person face normal circumstances. Maybe this is the influence of religion, or philosophy, or asceticism, or whatever—but I find the good life is the one where you tend to shush the ego, where you forget yourself. Not to the point of desolation or self-destruction or denial, but I do dislike this sort of very Western dwelling on one's little sores, little opinions, little life. This is a generalization, but I'm not really interested in psychological novels. I'd rather take a character, put him or her in unusual circumstances and see how he or she evolves than have a novel set inside a room where the character endlessly dreams away. That also goes for my own person. Even though I have what seems to be an interesting life, because I have moved around a lot, that's only the outside. I find neither my own life nor my own personal history that particularly interesting. I'd rather look out than in and very few of my stories are autobiographical. In Helsinki, the last story has autobiographical elements to do with my grandmother, this woman who lost her husband when she was very young and who accumulated all these objects. Her grandson comes for a visit and is bothered by this mountain of clutter she keeps in her house. That is autobiographical. But the point is not mere self-revelation; the story draws a lesson that can be applied beyond my life. At least I hope. The other stories are not autobiographical.
I have never written poetry, though I like to think that I have a sense of poetry. I don't feel comfortable in a genre that seems to have no rules. Grammar—forget it; syntax—forget it; punctuation—forget it; just plain sense—forget it. That's too arbitrary for me. I like the limitations of sentence and story. But I hope what I write is infused with a certain poetic.
It certainly is. In fact the poetic quality of your writing inspired my question. Was there something in the form of shorter fiction that no longer worked for you? Or is the development—from the composition of short stories to that of novels by way of the novella—a movement that most writers aspire to?
I don't know. It depends. Alice Munro, for instance, is a brilliant short story writer. No reason to turn to another genre when you're brilliant at it. No, the short story is very difficult. It's very, very tight, not a word is wasted. It takes a lot of effort for something that is, let's say, twelve pages long. No, I started writing novels because it suited my creative nature. I'm not a very fast writer. I do one thing for a long time slowly. I'd rather get involved in a project that is long-term. Also, I like doing research. It's my way of learning. But to do a whole pile of research for a single short story seems more work than it's worth it. At least for me. But it's a great genre, the short story, much maligned. Who can read Munro, Gallant, Maupassant, Daudet, and not like it?
Could we talk about your first novel, Self, which you allude to in the “Author's Note” at the beginning of Life of Pi and which I hear you do not really like to talk about? Self is preoccupied with the old theme of identity, at least that is how it has been read. And it uses an ancient trope to approach this theme, namely that of metamorphosis. Its first-person narrator goes through a whole series of metamorphoses, turning from male to female to male, transgressing boundaries of bodies, gender, and identity, self and other which, in the book, are also transgressions of form (pages are divided, for instance, and the text is reduced to individual terms like “fear” and “pain”), genre, and modes of perception. In Pi it seems that you are no longer as interested in such transgressions of form and identity?
Except that Pi practises three religions, which is transgressive. Self actually was less theory-driven than your question makes it sound like. Reducing it to its simplest form, it is a story of a boy who becomes a woman on his eighteenth birthday. In the book this is a completely natural process, not the result of an operation. He has no desire to be a woman, he just wakes up being one. Actually, he becomes one over the course of a week while he is traveling through Portugal. His body starts changing and he turns into a woman. And he is a woman for seven years and then turns into a man again. The reason I wrote this story—well, as with any work of art, I suppose there are many reasons—but one of the reasons I am aware of was that when I got to university I discovered things about myself that I was not pleased with. Most of us move through life convinced that we are good people. We tend to sweep under the carpet the hypocrisies, the lies, the deceits. That is a normal part of living, a normal way of dealing with childhood injuries and our various inadequacies. I think most of us when we reach adulthood are under the impression that we are not bigoted, that we are not racists. We tend to think that our prejudices are reasonable ones and therefore not prejudices at all. Few of us would openly say: “Oh I don't like blacks” or “I don't like Jews” or “I don't like women” or “I don't like fat people” or “I don't like—whoever”.
Well, when I got to university I realized that I was not treating women, thinking of them, fairly. That I was sexist, which nowadays sounds like I'm trying to be horribly politically correct. That's not it at all. No one likes to discover ugliness in oneself and I discovered something ugly. It had nothing to do with fashionable conformism. It was something private. The discovery came slowly. One shaft of light was an American study I read which showed that men interrupt women a lot more often than women interrupt men. After that I would catch myself interrupting a girl and think: “I just interrupted her. Was that right?” Which is not to say that women don't sometimes deserve to be interrupted. What I was discovering was that, as an eighteen-year-old male, I was a bit of a bull in a china shop. There was a psychological bluntness to my approach to human relations and more specifically to women. I was regulated in my relations with them by modes of thought that I was not aware of, and these modes of thought imbedded in me were not equitable. I wasn't happy with that. There was another American study, too. Psychologists asked girls how they would feel if they woke up one morning and were boys, and asked boys how they would feel if they woke up one morning and were girls. The girls' responses were varied. Some said: “Oh great, that would mean I could play baseball, or I could climb trees, or I could become an astronaut.” Some didn't want to be a boy, but they had a variety of responses. Boys, on the other hand, every single one, without one single exception, reacted with horror. I had two reactions. One, there's something wrong with that picture. Two, I can see why. I understood why the boys reacted the way they did. I could see that in their eyes it would be terribly disempowering to be turned into a girl. “But why is that?” I thought. Why is being a woman disempowering? What power are we talking about? Is life about being powerful? Is that the whole picture? What is the picture? I believe in the empathetic imagination so I thought the best way to find out would be to pretend to be a woman.
I did “Feminism 101” as fast as I could and I read classics such as The Second Sex and The Female Eunuch. And I decided to write a novel in which the male protagonist would become a woman. Feminism I think is probably the most important, richest force to come out of the twentieth century. Whereas Marxism is dead and gone, and capitalism is dead and still in place, feminism is still rich and responsive. And yet there's a discrepancy between theory and practice. The theory sounds good, very convincing, but some women still come home and do the cooking quite happily. Some women stay at home and do the cooking quite happily. How do we figure out division of labour? What is the true nature of a man, of a woman? Much of feminism is theoretical, academic. This, I think, is ultimately detrimental. Feminism must be lived, not thought. I thought a novel in which a character would live the life of a man and of a woman would shed some light for me. And the reason why I got bogged down and don't particularly like the novel anymore is precisely because the issue is so rich and complicated, because there is so much theory and so much practice. It was quite difficult getting the novel finished.
One of the key turning points in the novel is a rape scene. What exactly is rape? I often compare rape and the Holocaust, with the difference that whereas the Holocaust is acknowledged, rape often isn't, even though rapes happens all the time. Rape is rarely talked about in public discourse and hardly appears in fiction. When it does, it's just as a device to move the plot forward. There is no actual focus on the event, on what exactly happens psychologically. Rape is a very complicated crime. I did a fair bit of research on it. The rape scene in the novel I consider quite a successful rape scene in that it is impossible to project pleasure onto it due to the parallel structure of two texts: on the left-hand part of the page, the rape is described in a straightforward manner, on the right, we read the woman's emotions reduced to a repetition of two words, “pain” and “fear.” But once I had described that scene, I wondered: I have just described this minute Holocaust. Now what? Where do I go from here? It's the same point Adorno made when he visited Auschwitz and wondered whether there could still be art after Auschwitz. I felt at the end of that rape scene that I had nowhere to go creatively, and the novel ends on a grey, defeated tone. That has tainted my view of the novel.
Using the trope of the Holocaust for an act, or rather, a representation of rape, will probably meet with a lot of resistance, I would assume?
I don't know. I'll find out when my next novel comes out. But in both cases you dehumanize someone. At the same time, you're right. During the Holocaust the Jews were killed, whereas in a rape the victim is not necessarily killed. But spiritually, it's the same thing; if you rape or kill you don't see a person as a full human being and because of that you use of them as if they were objects. In both cases, it's a hate crime with a dash of pleasure. The Nazis and their acolytes took pleasure in terrorizing and killing the Jews. And they profited materially by robbing their goods, by taking over their houses. Rapists often do the same. And I think it's an appropriate parallel in another way: in the silence that surrounds both. No one really wants to talk about the Holocaust except out of weary duty. The only exception is some of the people directly affected by it, mostly Jews, and a smattering of historians and artists. Considering the staggering magnitude of the event, it is astonishing how little public discourse we hear about it, how little it is discussed on a daily basis. The Holocaust is still not something that we've integrated into our daily way of being. The same with rape. It is mostly muffled in silence.
Are there questions of perspective involved in any of this? Did you experiment with point-of-view in writing Self?
Yes, explicitly. I wanted to look at point of view and terrain. One of the notions I was exploring in writing the book was that the body is an environment. I was working with the idea that if our body is an environment, then our living with our body, in our body, must be a process of adaptation similar to our adaptation to the external environment. This adaptation would affect our behavior, our sexuality and our sexual orientation. I wanted to explore how sexual identity and orientation maps onto the body. In Self the narrator is always lagging behind or catching up with his or her body. When she becomes a woman she is still thinking like a man. She's in a woman's body but still thinking like a man. So she's still attracted to women. But over time, she starts changing. There are many reasons for this. One is the appeal of the forbidden. Though on the outside her new attraction to men is banally heterosexual, at first for her it's homosexual. The first time she kisses a man she thinks, “This is homosexuality. I am a homosexual.” And she's shocked, yet thrilled. So there's the appeal of the forbidden. That's one of the conscious reasons for the change. But beneath that I think there's an environmental adaptation, a linking between the mind and the body. I'm not being deterministic here. Of course we can override our “body environment,” much like we largely ignore our external environment. But it's there, our bodies, as gentle pressure that tells us how to be. In any case, in exploring this, in how the narrator shifts and changes, point of view was central.
For me reading your work, otherness evolves as a major theme in your writing. And this goes both for Self and for Life of Pi, where otherness figures in the otherness of religions as well as in the confrontation with the big other, nature and its inhabitants. In fact I got the sense that boundaries between self and other are quite fluid in your fictions. So what about this relation of self and otherness? And what about that relation if the territory is fiction?
Well, what else is there to write about but the confrontation with the other, whether that other is another person or our environment? As I said earlier, in general I'm not interested in psychological novels because they never get beyond the doorstep of one consciousness. The solipsistic, the self-involved, the angst of the solitary do not interest me. I'd rather look at the other, whether it's the animal other, the cultural other, the religious other—it is through them that we come to understand ourselves. Let's take an example. Let's say you're chocolate ice-cream. If you're chocolateness through and through, if all you've ever known your whole life is chocolateness, then, on one level, you have no idea what chocolateness is, though it permeates your whole soul. You will only understand chocolateness once you meet strawberryness and vanillaness and butterscotchness. It's in meeting the other that you start to understand, first, that you are different, and then how you are different. Of course, understanding chocolateness remains extraordinarily complicated. Socrates's “Know thyself” stumps chocolate ice-cream as much as it does us! And that's just ice-cream flavors—imagine when you're a human being. Everyone has multiple identities. But because it's a big, complicated sometimes frightening world, we tend to want to simplify our identity, forgetting that all of us all the time are wearing many, many hats. Yet we tend to meet only one otherness at a time. So when I am in Poland, I see only Polish otherness. I forget, or diminish, the otherness of women, of children, of body-types, of character, of social status, etc. So yes, I am interested in otherness, because it strikes me that it's the very matter not only of fiction, but of life. I strongly believe in the empathetic imagination, in making the effort to understand the other. Because in understanding the other, you eventually understand yourself.
Both Self and Life of Pi include scenes that are quite violent, though the situations themselves—the rape scene and Pi's first days on the lifeboat—do not necessarily compare. What function does violence take in the encounter of self and the other?
It's a platitude to say that violence is disturbing. Unfortunately, the truth of that only hits home when we're genuinely confronted with violence. I don't mean just the odd scuffle or verbal violence, but actual, physical violence. Even strong verbal violence with signs of aggression is extraordinarily upsetting. I'm interested in violence in part because I'm afraid of it, in part because I've witnessed it in others. And I guess I hope that looking at violence in writing is protecting me the way an insurance policy would; I write about it so that if it should ever happen to me, hopefully I'll better be able to deal with it. Also, the response to violence is in a compressed way, like a sort of shorthand, the same response to what will happen to all of us, which is death. My grandfather died when my father was ten and that has marked my father's life, and mine by extension. And I volunteer in a palliative care unit, a hospital unit for the terminally ill, for the dying. I've become quite familiar with the dynamics of death, with how death actually creeps up on a living body. And death is very rich metaphorically. It's the basis of all religion. If we didn't die, I don't think there would be religion. So, looking at death is yet another approach to the other. And death, violence, and fear are phenomena that impel us to change. Some change is self-willed, some, through fear of death, is forced upon us. In Life of Pi, Pi is confronted with fear and violence and has to deal with it—a situation I was interested in exploring.
One of the German reviewers of Life of Pi entitled his piece “Belated Animal Lover” which was meant to refer to you. Why that interest in animals? Is this more an ecological, philosophical or literary matter to you, if those can be separated at all? And why such preference for zoo animals in particular?
The reason is a lot less romantic than you might think. What started me on Life of Pi was a review I read of the novel Max and the Cats, by the Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar. In a part of that novel a man ends up in a lifeboat with a jaguar. What attracted me to that premise was that it was perfectly Aristotelian: there was perfect unity of time, action, and place. While I was in India, I decided to tell my own story with a similar premise because it had that mix of the improbable and the appealing that suited the story I wanted to tell. So the heartless answer to your questions would be: I used animals simply because they served the purpose of my narrative. But of course, I'm also interested in animals for their own sake. Animals fill me with wonder. But it's the novel that drew me to animals, not the other way around. I find animals to be very useful and versatile. I'm not finished with them. I'll be using them for the next one, a novel about the Holocaust. It will feature a monkey and a donkey. And the novel after that will feature three chimpanzees.
And like everyone, I am concerned about the destruction of the environment. I do believe that it's good that we have zoos because if we don't, children will never see animals in the flesh. An animal becoming extinct will have no more impact on them than a TV show that's been discontinued. Children won't really feel for an animal the way they would if giraffes were being pushed to extinction and they had seen giraffes. So I am concerned about animals and do have a fairly good knowledge of animals. Still, my interest is mainly artistic and not necessarily political, though I am politicized. And although I did have a lot of pets when I was a child and we lived in tropical countries, my attraction to animals wasn't obvious. But it is true that there are animals in every one of my books. In Helsinki, there is a dog named George H., after George Harrison. It plays a minor but charged role. And in Self, there is a bulldog that also plays a small, but emotionally significant part. I find animals useful primarily because we project a lot onto them. We project onto people, too, but we know that this is not necessarily acceptable and that there are limits to that. Whereas on animals we happily project: We talk to our cats and dogs; we see tigers as ferocious and hyenas as cowardly, etc. When people claim Life of Pi is an allegory, in fact they're mistaken. The animals are possibly allegorical, but otherwise they really are animals.
In my next novel animals allow me to speak indirectly about something that's hard to talk about directly: namely, the Holocaust. Just as we use jokes sometimes to say something very serious, I am using a monkey and a donkey, because everyone likes monkeys and donkeys, to talk about something no one likes talking about. And for the novel after that, I'll be using three different kinds of chimpanzees: one's a sculpture, one's a real chimpanzee, although dead, and one's a real, true-to-life, totally un-anthropomorphized chimpanzee. I'm using them as different approaches to understanding Christ. I'm using chimpanzees because they are primates, thus similar to us, in fact 98.4٪ genetically similar, which is, of course misleading because the 1.6 percent makes all the difference. So they are quite close to us in some ways and very different in others, like Christ.
As Samuel Fischer Professor at the Freie Universität Berlin you are currently teaching a seminar entitled: “Meeting the Other: The Animal in Literature.” In your course description, you claim that the animal is remarkably absent in Western literature. What then are you talking about with your students, what are you reading?
We started with Coetzee, with a modern piece, but I meant to start with the Bible. The animal is absolutely central to Jewish identity because of the dietary laws. A Jew knows his or her relationship to every animal in relation to whether it is clean or unclean. This does not mean that Jews sanctify animals, or treat them with ecological kindness. No, they kill them, they eat them. But every Jew knows: this animal I can eat, that animal I can't, and this implies a relationship with the animal world. And you see that if you look at the Old Testament. It's chockablock full of animals. In Genesis, animals are mentioned first, and in a fair bit of detail, and they are created on the same day as Man. So there is a hierarchy in the Jewish worldview, but it's one in which animals are right next to us.
The Jewish point of view entails a guardianship, a custodianship of the animal world more than an absolute domination. And this has to do, I think, with the fact that Judaism has a strong sense of place. When Jews say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” they mean that literally. The Holy Land is not a metaphor; it's a real place, with real geographical features, real flowers and trees, and real animals. Christianity, on the other hand, has a strong sense of person. Everything in Christianity comes down to Christ. Christ was a person. Persons can move. Persons who move have less of a sense of place. Christ had nothing to say about animals. There are animals in the New Testament, of course. Christ rides on a donkey, but it's a metaphorical donkey. It's a humble animal as opposed to the proud Roman horse. And there's a cock that crows to signal Peter's betrayal of Christ. But these animals are mere figures that move the plot forward, or are just symbols. There are no dietary laws in Christianity. The emphasis is on the person, which meant, as an unintended consequence, the slow evacuation of the animal from the Christian world. In it, animals are killed any which way—and any animals. They are eventually stripped of whatever dignity they had under Judaism. The culmination of this thinking might be Descartes, to whom animals are mere automatons, with no emotions or thoughts. Actually, the real culmination is the industrial food business, in which animals are treated with absolutely no respect. Real live chickens are treated like they were rubber chickens being manufactured in a smoke-belching factory. I don't believe in treating animals with exaggerated respect, but any animal can feel fear and every life form is worthy of basic respect. When you kill an animal, you should at least be aware of what you're doing. I object to going to the supermarket, buying a slab of meat all wrapped up in plastic for which you've played no role in raising the animal, killing it and butchering it. I believe in taking responsibility for our actions.
The course I teach is in fact a bit of a disaster because I've been so busy and have had no time to prepare for it. But in essence I want to point out that absence of the animal. So we've started with the Old Testament, moved to the New Testament, to the Gospels. Then I arbitrarily chose one play of Shakespeare, Macbeth, basically to point out the absence of real animals, the obsessive humanness of Shakespeare's world, in which everything was by humans, for humans and about humans. The natural realm is otherwise incidental. Change came with Darwin, who suddenly brought animals much closer than people ever imagined. After that you start having writers like Jack London and Hemingway, where the natural world plays a prominent role in which humanity plays a diminishing role.
Your novels dramatize transgressions of boundaries and in Life of Pi religion plays a significant part in this dramatization. In the “Author's Note” that opens the book you present the protagonist Piscine Molitor Patel's story as one that will “make you believe in God.” To me it seems, though, that the story your book presents makes one believe not so much in religion, but in fiction. Somewhat in the same way as Daniel Defoe makes us believe in fiction in Robinson Crusoe when he presents himself as the editor of the story that the first-person narrator has experienced first-hand. Your “Author's Note” very much reminded me of Defoe's device.
Yes, but then the question is: What do you mean by fiction? I discovered in writing Life of Pi that in a sense religion operates like fiction. A good novel works by making you suspend your disbelief. When you read a novel that doesn't work, you sense that, “Oh, this happened and it was so improbable. That's not how they do it.” Novels that don't work are emotionally dead, their mistakes in idioms or in cultural habits are annoying. A good novel—even though there are robots and flying dinosaurs—just takes us in. Religion works the same way—it makes you suspend your disbelief so that factual truth becomes irrelevant. It's not because the facts are ignored. It's more how you interpret the facts and how much you value facts that affect the totality of your sense experience. So to say that the book will make you believe in fiction, to me, isn't very far from saying it'll make you believe in God. I think it's acceptable to say that God is a fiction, if you understand that this doesn't necessarily mean that this fiction doesn't exist. It just exists in a way that is only accessed through the imagination.
A religious person will not say that his belief contradicts reality. In fact it's remarkable how people who have faith, no matter what happens to them, keep on having faith. Perfect proof of that is Judaism. How there can still be practising Jews, how they can still think they're the chosen people, considering what has happened to them these last twenty centuries, is crying proof that there's more to faith than facts. It's not that goes beyond facts, or ignores them. It's that religion interprets the facts, interprets reality differently. In my novel, the proof is not a reasonable one, it's an existential one. Now clearly, you have to use reason. Reason is a tool that is useful in nearly every circumstance, and it's simplistic to say that religious people are unreasonable and agnostics are reasonable. The mechanism of faith uses imagination and reason. If you suspend your cynicism, it is remarkable what a call on the imagination the Gospels are. It really does colour your world. You view other people in a different way and the universe—as I say at one point in Life of Pi—becomes built along moral, rather than intellectual lines.
Maybe God's silence is an appeal to get beyond factuality. Maybe God's trick is to call us through the imagination. If you don't have any imagination, you live a diminished life. The overly reasonable life is a shrunken life. So much alienation in Western cultures is due to an excess of reason. A homeless person in Montreal has nothing, truly nothing, whereas a homeless person in India is materially bereft, but will most likely have some sort of Hindu thought coursing through his mind which will somehow give him a perspective, a way of understanding his suffering.
Your protagonist Pi Patel irritates his family because he insists on practising three religions: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Does fiction or the imagination thus propose a solution for our current clashes of cultures and religions?
Yes, an emphatic YES—the empathetic imagination is the great solution. This is so true, so obvious, it becomes practically a psychotherapeutic tool. If you are an Israeli, you should imagine yourself a Palestinian. Then you will understand why the Palestinians are angry. If you're a Palestinian, you should make the effort of imagining yourself an Israeli, and then you will understand why the Israelis are afraid. If you're a man and you become a woman, you understand. If you're white and you imagine yourself black, etc. Such an approach will not only make the universe more peaceful. It's also very enriching. It's much like traveling. The empathetic imagination allows you to travel just as catching a train or a plane does.
In her review of Life of Pi, Margaret Atwood calls upon Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, and Moby-Dick as ancestors of your book. Let me pick Hermann Melville's Moby-Dick, which is a book that interrogates both science and transcendentalism, or rather calls scientific truths into question by looking beyond mere matter. Do you consider Pi as part of this tradition or do you find those comparisons inappropriate, even though they are certainly flattering in some sense?
They're very flattering. Honestly, however, I'm indifferent to these sorts of comparisons. I must be following some tradition, but it's for other people to tell me that. I'm Canadian, and Canadian literature has a tradition. I've written a story with animals, and there's a tradition about that. But at one point every artist does his or her own thing. Someone also mentioned Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which was one of the sources for the name Richard Parker [the name of the Bengali tiger that comes along on Pi Patel's travels]. Now the truth is, it's a terrible novel. The only reason it has survived is because Poe wrote it. So I was aware of it, but it played no influence other than giving me a name for one of my characters. Same thing with Moby-Dick: it's a great novel but it didn't have influence on my book as far as I can tell. There is a wink to Scliar in the novel, although it's mistaken one. I name a panther in my novel's zoo after what I thought was the one in Scliar's lifeboat, but in fact that jaguar has no name. I don't know where I got the idea that it did. My imagination again, buzzing about like a bothersome fly. So every artist does something new and eventually is told that he or she is part of a lineage. But that's imposed from the outside.
What about the relation between science and fiction? Like Moby-Dick your book seems to call scientific truths into question, though often quite ironically. Your protagonist, for instance, is named Pi, after “that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe.”
I think both texts would not work if their tone was fable-like. They have to be realistic to work. And to be transcendental, you must first be somewhere. So my novel works in part because it is rooted in gritty facts, in a very terre-à-terre view of things. I wanted to use science for practical narrative reasons to pull in the reader. After all, we operate with a mixture of the scientific and the transcendental. That's our approach to life. We are reasonable animals. That's what makes us more powerful than other animals. And we're the only animal with a strong sense of imagination. Dogs do have dreams, some capacity to be here but imagining something else, but it's far more limited than ours. However, we tend to be overly reasonable, because it has yielded so much materially, technologically. We've tended to denigrate the transcendental and parked transcendentalism with the arts as a “leisure product.”
What kind of research went into Life of Pi?
A fair bit of it. In terms of the castaway element, I mainly read real life accounts. Survive the Savage Sea, for example. It's a terrible title for a brilliant book from the early seventies by a Scottish man who was traveling on a yacht with his family and a Welsh hitchhiker. Their yacht was attacked by killer whales west of the Galapagos. He was a former merchant marine and he had a good knowledge of the sea. They survived thirty-seven days at sea. They were eventually rescued by a Japanese fishing vessel. Then he wrote this beautifully understated book about their odyssey. It's also a manual about survival at sea, an absolute gold-mine for me.
I also read the odd literary story about shipwrecks, though these tended to be more annoying than helpful because they were a finished result by some other artist on a theme I was tackling. Plus, I wanted my facts to be right. You can never trust an artist, whereas you can trust people who don't claim to be artists. For the religious element, I read the foundational texts—the Bible, selections of the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu texts as well as secondary texts to help with these texts. I read a history of zoos, some books on zoo biology, on animal psychology. And I visited zoos. I interviewed someone at the Toronto Zoo as well as the director of the Trivandrum Zoo in India. In India I also did experiential research: I went to temples, churches, and mosques, spent time in Pondicherry and Munar. And I read odd little things here and there on currents, on winds, on storms. I can't understand writers who don't do any research. If I was just going to write a novel about a guest professor in Germany and people he meets—it'd be so boring. I'd rather do something that is outside my life and allows me to do research.
If you were shipwrecked on a lonely island, what book and what animal would you take along?
There's a great line by Chesterton on that very question. He answered: “A guide to ship-building.” What book would I bring? It would have to be something big, not a novella. The book that impressed me most was Dante's Divine Comedy. It's the closest a book has ever come to capturing an entire world. It's just an extraordinary book. Maybe À la recherche du temps perdu. Maybe just the Oxford dictionary and a lot of blank paper and ten thousand pens.
And your animal choice if you could take a companion?
Well, if I had to take a companion, it wouldn't be a tiger. It would be something more personable. The obvious choice would be a dog, because that would be the most resilient, useful animal. Or maybe a primate. But see, we have this idea of considering animals as pets and very few can be pets, very few are domestic. Honestly, I'd probably take a dog, a big dog like a St. Bernard, a German Shepherd, or a Labrador. Or maybe a donkey. I like donkeys.
You have already mentioned Max and the Cats (1981), a novella by Moacyr Scliar from which your text received its “spark of life,” as you put in the “Author's Note” to Life of Pi, and with which your text shares one of its premises. Scliar's book tells the story of a Jewish boy who survives both the Holocaust and a shipwreck, sharing a lifeboat with a panther. Soon after receiving the Booker Prize you were charged with plagiarism, a charge which not only made for “a scandal that wasn't,” as one critic put it, but also for much publicity. And while I know you have talked enough about this matter, how do you see the case now as things have cooled down a bit?
Something was missed by the scandal. The real interest in this scandal to me was the question of what is an appropriate source of inspiration for an artist. That was the only really interesting issue, because clearly I didn't plagiarize. You can't plagiarize a book you haven't read. And until three weeks ago, I hadn't read Scliar's book. I had read a review of a book and that inspired me and I borrowed the premise. Is it dishonest to borrow a premise? Is it theft? To say that it is betrays, I think, an ignorance of the artistic process, in fact of the history of literature. The premise is the beginning of something. It's like the jokes that run along the lines of there's a Chinaman, a German, and a Frenchman in a plane; the plane is going to crash, and there's only one parachute.
That's the premise and then the joke develops. So for me the premise was a boy in a lifeboat with a wild animal. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet it's not just the premise that was borrowed from Boccaccio, but the entire plot. Did Shakespeare therefore plagiarize? We've borrowed countless times from the Greeks. That didn't bother people. Is it because Scliar is alive that people thought it was inappropriate? His book and mine are totally different and everyone who's read them sees that. First of all, Scliar's book is a novella. The part with the jaguar in the lifeboat is just sixteen pages long. Mine is over three hundred pages. To plagiarize sixteen pages for 350 pages is starting to sound like the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand with three loaves of bread! But that's not the only difference. The two books are totally different in theme, character, language and tone. So, why did it bother people? There's a movie by Fellini called E la nave va, which at one point has a man in a boat with a rhinoceros. I never saw the movie but I saw the poster two years into working on Pi. If I'd said it was that poster that had inspired me, I don't think that would have bothered anyone because it's a different medium, it's film.
The engine that fuelled this scandal was in fact political. Brazil and Canada have had poor relations for many years now, mainly due to commercial squabbles. That's what fueled the high emotions in Brazil, which is where the scandal started. Brazilians aren't very fond of Canada. But the whole thing came and went like a spring shower. I spoke with Scliar. He's a very nice man and a fine writer. Thanks to this scandal, I now know a writer in Porto Allegre.
Well, such cases obviously make for publicity. But it seems evident to me that people who make these kind of claims miss what literature is all about. Literary critics and theorists simply call such textual echoes intertextuality.
Well, I'm not of the school that any publicity is good publicity. I didn't need the extra publicity. The Booker Prize was publicity enough. Two weeks after the thrill of winning the Booker to have mud thrown at me was hurtful and annoying. It did blow over and there were follow-up articles in the US, in Canada and in the UK. But in some places—in France, for instance—there were merely brief articles saying “Booker Prize Winner Accused of Plagiarism.” And that was it. And when you're accused of something, it lingers. People forget that you are innocent until proven guilty. But anyway, the book will live and this nonsense will die.
Besides Scliar you have mentioned Conrad, Kafka, Milton, Dante, Gogol and Sinclair Lewis as part of your reading and inspiration.
My reading is quite eclectic and these are people who have influenced me, who have formed my sensibility. I think for any writer it's important to have read, especially when you're young. I find I read a lot less now, in part because I'm more preoccupied with my own creation, and have less patience for other writer's creations. What's great when you're young is that you have such a capacity to wonder. It's so much easier to suspend your disbelief; it means you can believe so much more and the effect of what you read is that much more powerful.
You're Québécois and your mother tongue is French, yet you write in English. I assume you consider yourself a citizen of the world?
No. I'm Canadian. I don't believe there are citizens of the world. Everyone is from somewhere, rooted in a particular culture. We're also citizens of the languages we speak. Some people speak many languages—I speak three, I'm a citizen of English, French and Spanish—but no one speaks World. World is not a language.
You prefer writing in English, obviously?
Yes, I grew up going to school in English. It's the language I learned to write in and to think in at my most subtle. But French and Spanish are dear to my heart.
How does it feel to live and teach literature in Berlin?
I love living in Berlin. And I don't mean to complain about winning the Booker, but it has ruined my stay in Berlin. I love Montreal, but it's nothing new to me. If I had won while living in Montreal, I could have involved myself fully in the Booker Prize without worrying about neglecting my home town, whereas Berlin, I had to neglect. I just haven't had time to do much here. A couple museums, one concert, a few movies, that's it. I'll have done in five months what some tourists would do in one week.
As for teaching—never again! I don't mind speaking in public. And there's nothing more stimulating than a young mind opening itself to the world. But I'm not an academic. I'm a creative artist. My knowledge of things is extensive but superficial, it's not systematic, it's totally partial, it's unfair, it's biased. So I have difficulty operating within an academic milieu. I'm not an expert on anything.
What are you currently working on?
Currently? Nothing, because I'm too busy. But I'm thinking about and jotting down the odd notes for my next book, which will be a fable. Everything I say about this, I hate saying because it seems so déjà vu. When I told people about Life of Pi they were sort of rolling their eyes and it will be the same thing here. People are going to roll their eyes and say: “This can't work.” My next novel will be a Holocaust fable featuring a monkey and a donkey with no references to the Holocaust, Germany, Jews, Poland, or concentration camps. It will be a fable that takes place on a large shirt the size of a country. There will be soil and rivers and trees and villages as well as button holes and collars and seams. The monkey and the donkey—they're both completely anthropomorphized—will be traveling through this country, discussing and enduring various tribulations. The shirt will be afflicted by a phenomenon they will call “the Horrors,” which obviously is a stand-in for the Holocaust. And as they travel around the shirt, the monkey and the donkey keep on telling each other little stories, folk tales, trying to find a way of capturing the Horrors, of speaking about it. They start at the back of the shirt, make their way up to the capital of the country, which will be called Yellow Star because of the colour of the brick used and the shape of the fortification. It is obviously the shirt of a Jew. The fable will be about how we understand evil, how we live with it, how we speak of it, how we remember it. The monkey and the donkey try to find what I'm calling a portable metaphor, a metaphor that can be applied, not only to their situation, but to other situations that are Holocaust-like. So I'm self-consciously trying to create a metaphor that will, I hope, stimulate people to consider the Holocaust and the lessons that we must draw from it.
The word Holocaust is already a metaphor. Holocaust is a religious term designating an animal sacrifice, something that happened routinely in ancient Judaism. To use that term for what happened between 1933 and 1945 is arguably an improper appropriation because it puts a positive spin on a horrible event. Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis did not think they were part of a religious ritual! I'm trying to find a different way to speak about that evil. And I would like it to be applicable to the extermination of European Jewry as well as to the violence that took place in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, to rapes and murder—any situation where a group is dehumanized.
So are you basically against the assumption that the Holocaust is an exceptional historical event?
That's a very contentious issue. On the one hand, the Holocaust is certainly exceptional. Never before had a government, an entire state apparatus, right from its inception, been devoted to exterminating an entire people. And the Holocaust was unique because of its scale and the use of advanced technology. But I also think there's a danger in saying the Holocaust is a unique event. If it becomes totally unique, standing there on its own, apart from everything else in human history, there's the danger we'll learn nothing from it. Because to learn you must compare. To remember and cry over Anne Frank, and then turn around and discriminate against gays, blacks, women, Arabs, the handicapped, etc, serves no purpose. There's a danger to over-sacralizing the Holocaust. It's got to be a living, breathing contentious matter open to debate and analysis and comparison. It must enter the rough tumble of discourse, even at the risk of sometimes disrespecting it. What I want to do in this new novel is to talk about a heavy event in an engaging way.
So it's in the tradition of Roberto Benigni's movie Life is Beautiful?
No, not really. I didn't like the movie. It was brave of Benigni to try a different approach. But it didn't work. It was too improbable emotionally. My approach will be different. It may very well fail, but I'll risk that.
Just one final question, returning us to Berlin. Are there places that are particularly conducive to writing or is that a wrong idea about how writing works for an author of fiction?
I can work pretty well anywhere. I only need my computer, a table, a little light and a little quiet. I can definitely work in Berlin.
As a native Berliner, I am very happy to hear this. And I thank you very much. It has been a pleasure talking to you.
SOURCE: Houser, Gordon. Review of The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Christian Century 120, no. 3 (8 February 2003): 34-5.
[In the following review, Houser considers the central theme of religious faith in The Life of Pi.]
Canadian writer Yann Martel, winner of the 2002 Booker Prize, sets up his delightful story [The Life of Pi] with a clever “author's note” in which an elderly man in Pondicherry, India, tells the author, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” With little fanfare, he hooks the reader into a postmodern novel, with stories within the story, questions about the veracity of the story or storyteller, and an ending that teaches a lesson about belief.
Narrator and protagonist Piscine Patel, who shortens his name to Pi after being teased about the pronunciation of his first name (rhymes with hissing), grows up near the Pondicherry Zoo, which his father has founded, owned and directed. Pi offers fascinating facts and insights into zoo animals, which become especially pertinent in the story's second part.
In an arresting narrative voice Pi writes, “I was fourteen years old—and a contented Hindu—when I met Jesus Christ on a holiday.” The boy ends up becoming not only a Christian but a Muslim as well, while remaining a Hindu. His three religious instructors meet with his parents to protest such audacity and soon get into an argument among themselves. Finally his father, who is not religious, says, “I suppose that's what we're all trying to do—love God.”
While this may sound simplistic and naïve, it fits with two of the book's themes: that all life is interdependent, and that we live and breathe via belief. Elsewhere Pi claims atheists as “[his] brothers and sisters of a different faith. … they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap.”
The bulk of the book concerns the 227 days Pi spends adrift in the Pacific Ocean after the Japanese freighter carrying his family and many zoo animals sinks. He is the lone human survivor on a 26-foot lifeboat, which he shares with a wounded zebra, a spotted hyena, a seasick orangutan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Soon only Pi and the tiger remain, and Pi must find a way to survive not only hunger, the elements and shark-infested waters but also the constant fear that Richard Parker will make him his lunch.
Martel carries off this section with aplomb. He combines dramatic episodes, scientific knowledge, well-written hallucinatory passages, humor and gruesome detail to move the story along. Since the entire book is told in flashback, we know how things will turn out, yet the suspense still grips us.
The writing here is deceptively simple. Martel lets the winsome narrative voice and the intriguing plot carry us, all the while winking as he tosses out thoughts on the kinds of metaphysical questions humans have pondered for centuries. The story may not make us believe in God, but it certainly helps us enjoy asking whether we should.
SOURCE: Mishra, Pankaj. “The Man, or the Tiger?” New York Review of Books 50, no. 5 (27 March 2003): 17-18.
[In the following review, Mishra discusses Martel's treatment of the theme of religious faith in The Life of Pi.]
Halfway through Yann Martel's first novel, Self (1996), the young first-person narrator abruptly decides to write a novel that will “address this matter of God.” This sounds a bit whimsical at first. It appears to be part of the same impulse to startle the reader that makes Martel leave some pages blank in Self, or fill several of them in his collection of stories, The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993) with nothing more than the words “blah-blah-blah-blah.”
But this matter of God turns out to be very important to the narrator of Self, who, like Martel himself, was born to French-Canadian diplomat parents in the early Sixties, spent a nomadic childhood in several countries, and is a student of philosophy. He describes falling unhappily in love, discovering masturbation, being bullied at school and bored at college. He has watched a lot of television—“it would be impossible,” he asserts, “to talk of my childhood without mentioning television.” He describes losing his virginity, and backpacking through the exotic East. It sounds like a privileged life—one that he shares with many Canadian men of his class and generation—but quite early on in it he has begun to feel restless, and to long for some kind of transcendence.
A similar sort of discontent is spelled out more clearly by the narrator of the title story in the collection The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, who also partly shares Martel's background, and who denounces “the insipidity, comfort and insularity” of life in Canada, particularly for his generation, which “has had it good and easy.” The first-person narrator of another story in the same collection, “The Mirror Machine,” concludes that in North America “materialism is a heaviness, a tragic distraction.” In an interview last year with The Washington Post, Martel appeared to confirm that he had given part of his experience and outlook to his fictional narrators. He described himself as a “good, middle-class boy” who had become a “seeker.” He questioned the primacy of “reason” in modern life. He thought that it “kills mystery” and leads to “a common thing in the West, a kind of spiritual hunger.”
To the narrator of Self, for whom life in North America “lacked the spirit that would have turned each step into a dance step, with its proper measure, rhythm and grace,” the turn toward God is both aesthetically and psychologically appealing. As he writes,
Occasionally I could intuit how much grander the march of life would be if God were. At such moments the truth or falsity of God's being seemed irrelevant. It was a fiction of such magnitude, why not believe it? What was gained by a truth that left one with an empty feeling? I could get by without God in the illusory infinity of my daily hours, but if I were in a plane about to crash, would I not miss Him? Would I not create him? And if I survived, would I want to dismiss Him a second time?
Piscine Molitor Patel, the South Indian protagonist and main narrator of Martel's most recent novel, Life of Pi, also insists that agnostics “lack imagination and miss the better story.” The better story of course is that God exists; and Life of Pi, which won Britain's Man Booker Prize last year, and which describes for the most part how a sixteen-year-old Indian boy survived 227 days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, aims at least partly to prove this: not only that God exists (the dust jacket promises to “make you believe in God”) but also that the idea that he might is more attractive and useful than denying or doubting his presence.
Martel claims in an author's note to Life of Pi that he was in India, struggling to write a novel set in Portugal, when he came across the story of Piscine or Pi: he was the son of a zookeeper, whose family, along with several animals, drowned in the Pacific Ocean while migrating to Canada in the mid-1970s, leaving him on a lifeboat with a tiger. An inquisitive, Martel-like writer appears often in the book in short italicized paragraphs; he describes tracking down Pi in Canada, and making him remember and narrate his extraordinary experience. But these multiple narrators and frames and the mixing of fact with fiction seem part of Martel's attempt to provide a “better story” and shore up thereby his illusion of reality.
In his author's note, he tersely acknowledges the Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar for providing him with “the spark of life,” but in later interviews he has elaborated on how the basic premise of Life of Pi came to him from a review he read years before of the English translation of Scliar's novel Max and the Cats (1990), which has a few pages describing a young German man trapped on a lifeboat with a jaguar.1
The French-Canadian writer who, inspired by a Brazilian novel, conjures up a protagonist in South India suggests a bold internationalism. Not surprisingly, Martel gives to Pi an eclectic taste in religions. Although his Hindu parents are “as secular as ice-cream,” he embraces all the three religions—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity—available in Pondicherry. This is an inspired move, conscious or not, on Martel's part: a majority of Indians, especially those living in villages and small towns, regularly defy the official census categories—Hindu, Muslim, Christian—they were born into by visiting temples, Sufi shrines, and churches with almost equal devotion.
Some of Martel's descriptions of religious practices in India carry the whiff of an encyclopedia entry, or a tourist's scrupulously kept journal. (“There is Brahman, the world soul. … I am a Hindu because of sculptured cones of red kumkum powder and baskets of yellow turmeric nuggets. …”) But his sharp eye creates intimacy where his research falters. A Sufi mystic with the Hindu name of Satish Kumar may be as hard to find as a Southern American Baptist called Pervez Ahmed, but you are apt to forget about the incongruity when Martel shows the Sufi in his tiny bakery unfurling his prayer mat, and “throwing up a small storm of flour.”
Martel makes Pi believable by accumulating such details about his school, his father's zoo, his brother's obsession with cricket. He portrays a happy childhood, full of innocent wonder and devotion, and relatively untouched by the Indian realities of poverty and religious conflict. Pi's sheltered, self-absorbed life in South India may help explain his tone, a graduate student-like mix of solemnity and jauntiness, which he shares with Martel's Canadian narrators. “I was,” he says at one point, “fourteen years old—and a well-content Hindu—when I met Jesus Christ on a holiday.” “Why,” he exclaims, “Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise.” When a Christian priest, Muslim imam, and Hindu pandit together confront him with his improperly diverse religious beliefs, Pi quotes Gandhi—“all religions are true”—and adds, “I just want to love God.”
Such unreserved devotion to God is rarely seen in contemporary literary fiction, where religious belief, even in the work of a practicing Christian like John Updike, competes with, and is often overwhelmed by, everyday secular preoccupations (money, class, sexual love, politics), and where other-worldliness usually appears in the form of ghosts or other supernatural phenomena. Martel seems to be aware of this. He told Publisher's Weekly in an interview last year that he was worried about how Life of Pi would be received in Canada, where, he claimed, “secularism is triumphant and to talk noncynically, nonironically about religion is strange.” He added that he had rearranged the “religious information” in the Canadian edition of the novel, while keeping it intact for readers in America, which he described as a “very religious, almost puritanical country.”
This may explain partly why Martel chose to dramatize his own disaffection with Western reason and secularism through a narrator from India, rather than, as in his previous fiction, from Canada. Four decades after Hermann Hesse became a sage of the countercultural 1960s, it seems exceedingly difficult for a contemporary novelist to revive his themes and treat without a mordant irony the middle-class Western character who, discontented with his civilization's materialist outlook, turns into a seeker. Martel wasn't wrong if he thought that a modern Indian teenager with a spiritual hunger may be more acceptable to his largely secular readers, more immune to their agnostic skepticism or mockery, since religion in India often appears from afar charmingly exotic, far from being the drab, private, almost surreptitious thing it is often reduced to among a sophisticated literature-reading public in Canada.
However, religion is respectable not just in India, and America, but also in large parts of the so-called “secular West,” where it assumes forms that borrow only very superficially from the “foundational texts” of Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity, which Martel claims to have read in preparation for writing Life of Pi. The new interest in religion is often driven, as in Martel's case, by weariness with Western secularism and materialism, and nostalgia for an imagined pre-modern age of simplicity and spiritual wholeness.
These usually vague feelings and hopes can be found not only among Hindu immigrants in North America or Muslim immigrants in Europe—people who grow especially devout while in the West—but also among the millions of consumers of self-help books, mystical Persian poetry, and New Age literature. They are expressed by the middle-class antiglobalization protesters of Canada and Europe, and even inspire best-selling European composers of classical music like John Tavener and Arvo Pärt. Certainly, the relative success of Life of Pi in such supposed bastions of secularism and irony as Canada and Britain suggests that not all of Martel's anxieties about being out of tune with the zeitgeist were justified.
In any case, religious matters abruptly recede from the novel after Pi's father, who is fed up with Indira Gandhi's dictatorial ways, decides to leave India. The Japanese ship taking Pi and his family and some animals to Canada sinks soon after leaving Manila. His family and their animals drown. Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, a tiger, a hyena, and an orangutan. Much of the zoological information Martel scattered early on in the book takes on a new precision and force as the hyena kills and eats the zebra, and then turns upon the orangutan, before being killed and eaten by the tiger.
It is not easy at first to imagine this mayhem taking place on a lifeboat, which is “three and a half feet deep, eight feet wide and twenty-six feet long, exactly.” But once free of the task of depicting South India and Indians, Martel appears wholly at ease with the barely imaginable and the unspeakable. Here is the hyena attacking the zebra:
It put its front legs on the zebra's side, reached over the gathered fold of skin in its jaws. It pulled roughly. A strip of hide came off the zebra's belly like gift-wrap paper comes off a gift, in smooth-edged swath, only silently, in the way of tearing skin, and with greater resistance. … It started pulling out coils of intestines and other viscera. … After devouring half the liver, it started tugging on the whitish, balloon-like stomach bag. But it was heavy, and with the zebra's haunches being higher than its belly—and blood being slippery—the hyena started to slide into its victim. It plunged head and shoulders into the zebra's guts, up to the knees of its front legs. It pushed itself out, only to slide back down. It finally settled in this position, half in, half out. The zebra was being eaten alive from the inside.
A series of such intensely vivid scenes involves us deeply in Pi's fate as, for the next two hundred pages, he is left to deal with the 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker, to suffer seasickness and extreme weather, and to know the brutishness of life outside civilization. One reads on, both fascinated and appalled. When Pi lists the rations on the lifeboat—192 tablets of anti-seasickness medicine, 124 tin cans of fresh water, etc.—it has the same incantatory power as the roster of Lolita's classmates that Humbert Humbert chances upon in Nabokov's novel.
The rations soon run out; and Pi, a vegetarian, is forced to kill fish, to drink turtle blood, and, in a particularly bleak moment, to taste tiger shit. He learns to mark out his territory on the boat with urine, and to appease Richard Parker with regular supplies of food. He doesn't reflect much on his religious past, or his progressive loss of humanity; he is preoccupied entirely by his desperate quest for survival. Months pass; but Pi doesn't notice. Indeed, as he says, “I survived because I forgot even the very notion of time.”
He does have a heightened sense of the vast world that encloses him, which Martel's brisk conversational prose evokes most effectively:
Once there was lightning. The sky was so black, day looked like night. The downpour was heavy. I heard thunder far away. I thought it would stay at that. But a wind came up, throwing the rain this way and that. Right after, a white splinter came crashing down from the sky, puncturing the water. It fell some distance from the lifeboat, but the effect was perfectly visible. The water was shot through with what looked like white roots; briefly, a great celestial tree stood in the ocean.
Later, toward the end of his journey, Pi runs into a blind French castaway. He talks to him at some length about food, and then watches the tiger kill and consume his recent guest. He also discovers a large island made up of algae and full of meerkats. Martel describes both of Pi's last encounters with the same exactness that he has brought to other improbable events in the book. By the time Pi reaches dry ground in Mexico, where the tiger promptly disappears, Martel's grasp of zoological and botanical information seems so sure and his ability to evoke a sense of wonder so dazzling that it is hard not to be absorbed by Pi's story. Close to the end of the novel, the reader is fully on Pi's side and looks with smug impatience upon the Japanese officials who are trying to find out from Pi what happened to the Japanese ship he was traveling on, and who refuse at first to believe that he survived 227 days on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger.
Faced with doubtful Japanese officials, Pi spins out quickly a more plausible story, turning the animals into human beings. He then asks his interviewers, “Which story do you prefer?” They reply that “the story with animals is the better story.” Pi replies, a bit sententiously, “Thank You. And so it goes with God.”
It seems then that having stretched our credulity through some hypnotic storytelling, Martel wishes now to enlarge our religious beliefs. He wants us to give serious thought to the matter of God: how he both exists and is part of a better story. Soon after his ship sank, Pi had said that “had I considered my prospects in the light of reason I surely would have given up.” Martel wants us to consider it a miracle that Pi reaches Mexico just after he, feeling “bereft and desperate” and “in the throes of unremitting suffering,” turned to God.
But miracles and abrupt religious conversions convince even less often in fiction than they do in real life. It is also arguable that neither God nor the better story was of much practical use to Pi during his ordeal. In fact, Martel himself is careful not to impose too many reflections about God and religion upon Pi, who barely has the time to grieve for his dead parents and brother. Martel seems to know that a body in pain such as Pi's senses nothing but itself. It is to his credit that after throwing Pi into the grim struggle for survival he makes him lead, for much of the novel, a purely biological existence, in which every action is either useful or not, and has no moral or religious meaning beyond its principle of utility.
But this also means that Martel is unable to reveal adequately, after the flurry of colorful religious information in the early pages, the precise nature, or vacillations, of Pi's faith. Clearly, the big questions about life and morality that any discussion of God provokes are as irrelevant to Pi on his lifeboat as they usually are in the animal kingdom, where consciousness appears to exist only in order to help the basic tasks of survival and procreation. They emerge most strongly where human beings face everyday, and so have to find both private and collective solutions to the problems of living together on an overcrowded planet.
Pi's appeal finally lies not so much in what he makes of the matter of God as in the exhilarating, largely secular fantasy he embodies: the fantasy of escaping briefly from what one of Martel's narrators calls the “inspidity, comfort and insularity” of highly organized, modern societies, of becoming the first and only man in the world, and mastering, through personal ingenuity, indifferent nature and one's own destiny. The fantasy, which is also available in much survival and endurance literature, works to allay the helplessness and tedium and also the “spiritual hunger” felt by many people living in a technology-driven, increasingly complex world.
This is the world, based upon science and reason, which human beings began to make once they freed themselves from the power of religion. Martel does not tell us how we could relearn faith in it. Nor does he dramatize how hard it is to find clear answers to such questions. He wishes to use a tale of survival to alert us to the likely benefits of faith in God. As it turns out, his instincts as a storyteller prove to be keener than his ability to proselytize. For, by rendering faithfully Pi's vulnerable state on the lifeboat, he ends up affirming life as biology, with God featuring as a not always useful aesthetic consolation (“a better story”), or as a last-minute deus ex machina, which saves Pi just in time for a new life in multicultural Canada.
Part of the reason for Martel's unpersuasive treatment of God may lie with his somewhat born again-ish theology, which confines religion to what the narrator of Self calls “the possibility of salvation at a crucial moment.” It is as if God exists mostly in order to help, rather than complicate, the individual's lonely pursuit of happiness in a world full of similarly engaged and lonely individuals.
Religion in this vision begins to seem more an accessory to contemporary lifestyles than an ethic through which one might reevaluate the way we live now. It does not appear to have emerged out of any great moral, spiritual, or even political dilemmas, such as those that in the past led the Christians to stress compassion, the Muslims egalitarianism, and the Hindus and Buddhists self-awareness and renunciation. “These are terribly old-fashioned things you have taken to,” Pi's secular mother tells her son when he declares his attraction to religion. But Martel's own attitude toward these old-fashioned things appears very much up-to-the-minute, part of the New Age, where religion itself is often a higher and glossier form of materialism.
Much was made recently of the allegedly close resemblance that Martel's novel bears to Scliar's. See “Canadian's Book Raises Hackles in Brazil,” The New York Times, November 2, 2002. But Life of Pi reveals few signs of influence apart from the idea of a man and a ferocious cat together on a lifeboat, which is only one of the many strands of Scliar's complex political novel about Nazism.
SOURCE: Palmberg, Elizabeth. “Man Overboard.” Sojourners 32, no. 2 (March-April 2003): 55-6.
[In the following review, Palmberg describes The Life of Pi as “a beautifully crafted novel” about the quest for religious faith.]
One of the many and fruitful exaggerations in Yann Martel's Life of Pi is the assertion, made by a minor character, that Pi's story will “make you believe in God.” With humor, incisiveness, excellent writing, and an uncompromising fidelity to the messy compulsions of the human heart, what the novel really compels is not belief in God but sympathy for those who seek God. For readers invested in the sacred, it is a well-finished novel about unfinished business.
Young Pi Patel, a zookeeper's son growing up in India in the '60s and '70s, has no trouble believing in God. By age 15, he is simultaneously an active Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, unbeknownst to his agnostic parents, and Pi compares the three religions' stories and practices in rich, quirkily reverent prose. Of Christianity, all Pi initially knows is that “it had a reputation for few gods and great violence. But good schools.” Initially, Pi is bemused by Christianity's emphasis on conversion—“religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an ambulance”—and repelled by its “one Story” of crucifixion and atonement, which strike him as “downright weird.”
After a few days of visiting a kindly priest, however, Pi is conquered by Christ's message of love. Not much later, a gentle Sufi mystic and baker leads Pi to experience Islam as a “beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.” The teenager also cheerfully agrees with Gandhi that “all religions are true.”
What the book is mainly about, as the cover illustration suggests, is Pi's travails once he is trapped on a life raft with an adult Bengal tiger, the last survivor of his father's zoo. Here, Martel's sense of humor gives way to a sense of the absurd, references to God diminish, and Pi's struggle to survive, physically and emotionally, takes center stage.
One of the many virtues of Pi's odyssey is that it teaches the reader a good deal about animals. The foremost lesson, which preserves Pi's life on the raft, is that it is foolish and dangerous to think of animals in human terms: “Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are ‘happy’ because they are ‘free,’” Pi muses. “These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of a gnu or of an aardvark is rarely exalted). … Animals in the wild live lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context?”
Pi concludes, “I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”
The compulsions under which animals live—the drives for territory, rigid hierarchy, and food—are by no means the main ones that drive the gentle Pi as he searches for God's love, or even as he tries to survive at sea. But, paradoxically, it is precisely because animals are not like us that they can help unravel our illusions of freedom; the novel pursues this insight through layers of very human contradictions. One of those contradictions is that in order to survive physically, Pi must intimidate the tiger. But to survive emotionally, he must feel for it companionship and even love.
When Pi has exhausted every resource, when “the rest of this story is nothing but grief, ache, and endurance,” he says, “it was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.” But this is the end of a chapter, rather than the beginning, and the next chapter describes not God but landfall.
As Life of Pi's early chapters make clear, Pi himself will go on to piety and comparative happiness in Canada. The novel, in contrast, comes to a climax immediately after Pi's rescue, when he struggles to describe how the sharp knife of suffering has cut away his family, his health, his vegetarianism, and arguably his grip on reality. Martel makes all of these losses, particularly the last, bear rich fruit.
By the end, Pi's belief in God and love has been honed down to a stark, unhopeful, desperate need for God and love—or for storytelling, which Martel seems to regard as the same thing. Even those of us who do not fully agree on that point will find in this beautifully crafted novel utter honesty, passion, and yearning for the sacred.
SOURCE: Cobb, Gerald T. “Adolescent Mariner.” America 188, no. 13 (14 April 2003): 22.
[In the following review, Cobb views The Life of Pi as an extremely well-written and engrossing novel about religious faith and doubt.]
Yann Martel won Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, for Life of Pi, a book that reinvents the lost-at-sea novel in quite striking terms. Martel himself has been storm-tossed in a controversy about whether he inappropriately employed the premise of a 1981 story by Moacyr Scliar. In an “Author's Note” he credits the Brazilian author for “the spark of life,” but he insists that the novel itself is an original work. And what an ingenious text it is; readers will find Martel's novel gripping and unforgettable.
At a coffeehouse in Pondicherry, India, the author is approached by an elderly man who says, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” He directs the author to Mr. Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi for short) in Toronto, who narrates most of the novel. The grown Pi takes us back to a time when he was 16 years of age (Pi is the 16th letter in the Greek alphabet), growing up in an eccentric and loving family, presided over by his father, who gave up a career as hotelier to become a zookeeper. Pi notes, “My alarm clock during childhood was a pride of lions.”
The boy owes his name to a fabled swimming pool in Paris, and although his peers nickname him “Pissing,” the connotation of fish-like adaptability is a consoling prognostication of the piscine skills he will need later during 227 days adrift at sea. His name also has a mathematical connotation as the never-quite-finished calculation of the relationship of a circle's circumference to its diameter, which is suggestive of the relationship between linear journey and cyclical pattern. On one level, Pi's narrative concerns a voyage from India to the coast of Mexico, but it is also caught up in the diurnal cyclical patterns of life at sea, and the cycle of doubt and faith.
The youthful Pi has a strong penchant for religious faith. Initially steeped in Hinduism, he encounters Christianity at age 14 and asks to be baptized. Subsequently he also embraces Islam. He intends to follow all three faiths simultaneously, but the strategy backfires when a priest, imam and holy man happen to meet him and his parents all at the same time.
Pi offers fresh and moving descriptions of these great faiths: “If Hinduism flows placidly like the Ganges, then Christianity bustles like Toronto at rush hour. It is a religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an ambulance.” Islam is “a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.” Since according to Pi, “the presence of God is the finest of rewards,” his triple religious affiliation provides him three ways to experience that consoling presence. At various dire moments, he is thus able to offer a compound ecumenical prayer-salutation: “Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu!”
The decision of Pi's family to move to Canada, taking with them a number of the zoo's animals, sets the stage for the novel's crisis, the sinking of their ship at sea. Pi is set adrift in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The reader's first impulse is to want Richard Parker to possess Disneyesque charm and geniality, but Martel makes a compelling case that the threats of sea and tiger can be present in the same confined space with the boy. The lifeboat serves as a simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive setting, a stage that is by turns a circus ring, a killing field and a place of prayer.
When dubious government investigators later question Pi's account of his horrific ordeals at sea, he retorts: “Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might.” The investigators lack Pi's openness, and he admonishes them: “You want a story that won't surprise you, that will conform to what you already know, that won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.” Life of Pi is anything but yeastless. A surprise twist at the end of the novel offers an entirely different interpretation of Pi's story. What really happened in the lifeboat, and what stories can we tolerate as possibly true?
Martel takes his place among such literary figures as Hopkins, Shelley and Byron, who have treated shipwrecks as paradigmatic crises in human meaning. One who is set adrift finds himself or herself exposed to the worst (and occasionally to the best) of nature and human nature. Consider Stephen Crane's story “The Open Boat,” in which the situation of being adrift confronts one with what Crane, himself the survivor of a shipwreck, called “the unconcern of the universe.” Survivors of shipwrecks become interpreters of man's everyday condition and ultimate fate. Like the Ancient Mariner, the adolescent mariner Pi has an important tale to tell.
Martel's novel is extremely well written, reflective when it needs to be reflective, thrilling when it needs to convey adventure on the high seas and ultimately more than engrossing in its generous blend of zoology and theology. It has moved the imaginations of such a large readership that the tourism director of Pondicherry, India, is currently promoting the idea of building a zoo to correspond with early scenes in the novel.
For the rest of us, the point is not whether there is a zoo in Pondicherry, but rather whether this is, indeed, a story to strengthen one's faith. There are two distinct and quite different ways to understand the novel's conclusion. Martel offers the choice of interpretation as a gift to the reader.
SOURCE: Boyagoda, Randy. “Faith, Fiction, Flotsam.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life (May 2003): 69-72.
[In the following review, Boyagoda asserts that the central narrative of The Life of Pi is a powerful and enjoyable tale, but that Martel's confused discourse on religion distracts from the novel's strengths.]
Good news came from across the Atlantic late last year. England's most prestigious literary award—the Booker Prize—had been awarded to a work that made the following assertion on its inside cover: “This is a novel of such rare and wondrous storytelling that it may, as one character claims, make you believe in God. Can a reader reasonably ask for anything more?” That sophisticated English literary palettes thought this a reasonable claim—and that Canadian Yann Martel's The Life of Pi has since become a bestseller—may be an indication that growing numbers of people, thirsting for more substance in their lives, are beginning to seek more substance in their reading. Or, alternately, it may be a comment on the brand of popular piety Martel's novel proposes.
The protagonist of The Life of Pi is the precocious son of a pragmatic zookeeper, an Indian boy fascinated by his nation's many faiths but forced by its many political problems to emigrate to Canada along with his family and their animal charges. During the voyage, their ship suddenly sinks, leaving the boy on a lifeboat along with a few furry survivors; ultimately only Pi and a tiger remain. As the duo drift through the Pacific Ocean, struggling to survive the elements, Pi must also struggle to survive his shipmate; he relies on his wits and his faith in, intermittently, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam to do so. After a series of adventures—some wondrous, some gruesome—their boat washes up in Mexico and the two part ways. We never hear from the tiger again, but we do hear from Pi. In fact, he retells his story as an adult living in Toronto, in a house whose décor—a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe rests beside a photo of Kaaba; a brass statue of Shiva stands beneath paintings of Christ; a prayer rug lies near a bedside Bible—inadvertently displays our protagonist's eclectically tacky approach to religion.
The Life of Pi seems to have as many literary predecessors as India has religions. There are traces of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, St. Exupéry's Le Petit Prince, and Aesop's Fables. But The Life of Pi also asks to be the latest in the long line of grand tales about India, novels that seek to capture what Martel himself calls “the rich, noisy, functioning madness” of the place, and a great deal of the novel's flaws rest in that ambition. The encounters of two more famous orphans with India's religions provide a sense of what Pi lacks. Kipling's Kim and Rushdie's Saleem Sinai dash from one end of India to another, experiencing the nation's religious panoply as it must be—as frenzied, vital, occasionally terrifying—rather than as a well-meaning Canadian might imagine it: as polite, passive, frequently meek.
For example, the adult Pi, an Indian orphan-cum-Canadian immigrant, recalls finding a Gideon Bible in a hotel room. He praises the Gideons, then advises: “They should leave not only Bibles, but other sacred writings as well. I cannot think of a better way to spread the faith. No thundering from a pulpit, no condemnation from bad churches, no peer pressure, just a book of scripture quietly waiting to say hello, as gentle and powerful as a girl's kiss on your cheek.” The author's patent lack of appreciation for the intensity and particularity of religious devotion explains such myopic idealism and saccharine imagery. In telling us that the Bible (and “other sacred writings”) is “just a book” to spread “the faith,” Martel reveals his fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between God and religious practices. Martel offers a confusing pastiche of devotions brought into unity by the sincerity of individual intention and action, rather than by virtue of the singular truth inherent in any of the religions Pi purports to follow.
Pi's repeated all-inclusive paeans to his private trinity of faiths detract from an otherwise enjoyable tale, which Martel achieves when he forgets about religion and concentrates on telling his young hero's adventures. Running through the chaos of a sinking ship; watching a tiger wrestle a shark; exploring a mysterious island; devising ways to catch turtles and gather fresh water—these are but some of the novel's small pleasures. In matters not religious, Martel chose the right narrator: Pi's innocent voice allows us to revel in the wide-eyed pleasures of this world as only a young boy on a fantastic voyage can experience them. Consider Pi's description of the fearful symmetry of raw elegance and sublime power occasioned by his tiger companion returning to their boat:
He surged onto the stern, quantities of water pouring off him, making my end of the boat pitch up. He balanced on the gunnel and the stern bench for a moment, assessing me. My heart grew faint. I did not think I would be able to blow into the whistle again. I looked at him blankly. He flowed down to the floor of the lifeboat and disappeared under the tarpaulin. I could see parts of him from the edges of the locker lid. I threw myself upon the tarpaulin, out of his sight—but directly above him. I felt an overwhelming urge to sprout wings and fly off.
Like Pi, we are breathless, a tiger-training whistle dangling from our lips, as much from the beauty as from the terror of a wild animal in close proximity.
However grateful we may be to Martel for such moments, the third and final section of his novel limits our general appreciation by enlisting us in a clumsy postmodern game of narration and belief. The section is comprised of a transcript between two Japanese representatives of the shipping company and Pi, recuperating in a Mexican hospital room. The Japanese have no time for Pi's unbelievable musings and insist upon a factual account of the ship's sinking, so Pi retells his tale, turning his animal shipmates into humans. The new version is more comprehensible but less enjoyable: either way we can never know which version “actually” happened. We likely entered the novel as skeptical as are the Japanese, but having heard the story, we now face a test of faith: Which do we believe? Of course Martel wants us to believe in Pi's original version, with the floating banana island and the man-eating plants and the flying fish. In his view, to do so is a leap of faith, which in turn is a leap towards God: the God brought into existence by the novel itself, a strange mishmash of religious notions and figures that together comprise the deity that Pi creates and celebrates. In short, a God of fiction.
Martel should have stuck to the metaphoric approach he takes to religion at the end of the novel's second section, when Pi finally reaches land. In his darkest moment, Pi perceives: “The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.” The next chapter opens: “When we reached land,” a phrase that with simple perfection conveys the foundation given to us when we rely on God's power, rather than on our own. In one of the novel's few instances of coherent religious meaning, Martel echoes St. Paul and Kempis' Imitatio in telling us that if we turn to God in our lowest moments, inevitably we will be raised up on high. A meaningful moment, sadly set adrift amongst so much faith-as-flotsam. If only we could agree with Pi's approach to religion, we could enjoy his Life. Were we to read in a compartmentalized way, taking bits and pieces from here and there that amuse or ennoble us, ignoring the deeper implications of such a piecemeal commitment to a unified whole, we could happily sail along with boy and tiger. But such a way of reading, of professing, indeed of living, while so symptomatic of our contemporary condition, ought not be our course.
T. S. Eliot made the following distinction: “We must believe that the greater part of our current reading matter is written for us by people who have no real belief in a supernatural order, though some of it may be written by people with individual notions of a supernatural order which are not ours.” Martel falls into the latter camp: unfortunately, his invitation to believe in God through his novel is too individualized to be reasonable. We do not turn to fiction to find the true God, and we should not turn to it to find a recipe for making a God agreeable enough to our personal tastes to believe in. We turn to good novels in part to exercise our imaginations, and The Life of Pi allows for that in some places. Yet Martel goes much further, to imply that we can find God by using our imaginations freely. But we can only hope to find God by using our imaginations wisely. Fiction, on its own, cannot create truth. The finest books can at best sound the depths of the human condition and bring rumors of the highest truths. They help chart our course towards that undiscovered country where we all hope, someday, to land.
SOURCE: Smith, Jean. Review of The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 158-59.
[In the following review, Smith is generally critical of The Life of Pi, asserting that Martel offers a confused discourse on religious faith.]
This ultra-linear novel [Life of Pi] begins with, and not after, an author's note from which a word is used to summarize travel in India: “bamboozle”—soon put to use at a train station when a clerk claims, “There is no bamboozlement here.” Publisher's Weekly revealed the bamboozlement of their reviewer by referring to Martel's “captivating honesty about the genesis of his story.” Martel lifted the idea for this novel from one by Moacyr Scliar about a Jewish zookeeper who ends up in a lifeboat with a panther. Now we have Pi, an Indian teenager on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Martel doles out name-play like chunks of hyena for the reader to chew on—comic relief from the cultish deluge of detail and gory animal behavior. Early in the story, during a youthful phase of comparative-theology samplings, Pi is bemused by Christianity's singular story. “Humanity sins but it is God's Son who pays the price?” He tries to imagine his father, a zookeeper without a religious bone in his body, feeding him to the lions to atone for their sins. Martel's brand of verbal alchemy loosens our grip on belief, allowing faith to pop up like any good mirage worth its salt. When Pi rules out killing the tiger in favor of taming him, a reciprocal relationship evolves. A bit of a MacGyver of the high seas, Pi relies on earthbound lessons (including the danger of anthropomorphism) to survive 227 days of staring Richard Parker down. Once back on dry land, two officials from the shipping company arrive to obtain information from Pi, who accepts the cookies they offer, collecting enough of them to miraculously offer them back to these disbelievers, who graciously accept and go forth to chronicle their findings as “unparalleled in the history of shipwrecks.” Do I believe in God after hearing Pi's story? I believe everyone has a story to illuminate faith, and each of these stories is the best.
SOURCE: Morra, Linda M. “Re-Visioning Crusoe.” Canadian Literature 177 (summer 2003): 163-64.
[In the following review, Morra compares Martel's The Life of Pi with Daniel DeFoe's eighteenth-century novel Robinson Crusoe.]
The tripartite structure of Life of Pi, Yann Martel's second novel and winner of the 2002 Booker Prize, corresponds to three major periods of the protagonist's life: his adult life in Canada where he meets the narrator and divulges his life-story; his childhood in India followed by a traumatic experience at sea; and his rescue and recovery in Mexico. Initially, some cursory narrative details of the second and third of these parts suggest parallels with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Pi—whose equally resonant birth name, Piscine Molitor, is derived from the “crowning aquatic glory of Paris”—is lost at sea after a shipwreck. Like Crusoe, he survives the cruelties of starvation, isolation, loneliness (if one disqualifies the presence of Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger), and the elements, as he also becomes preoccupied with making a raft and the tools and means upon which his survival depends.
Martel's novel, however, is no simple variant of the Crusoe adventure story. In fact, Life of Pi seems designed to impugn the bourgeois Puritan ideology that underlies Robinson Crusoe. An examination of the protagonists and their respective circumstances demonstrates this significant difference. Crusoe, the son of a wealthy merchant, initiates a sea voyage of his own volition rather than entering into business, as his father desires. No such option is given to Pi, whose sea voyage is born of necessity, not whimsical inclination. Notwithstanding the series of misfortunes he encounters, Crusoe is adept at duplicating his father's business practices: he not only survives the shipwreck, but also applies the work ethic he has inherited from his father and amasses a small fortune. In contrast, Pi is obliged to relocate to Canada from Pondicherry, India, with his family and their menagerie of animals (which were part of a zoo, the family business) because of the country's economic instability and political turmoil. No amount of hard labour would have transformed the zoo into a lucrative business since, as the narrator observes, “the Greater Good and the Greater Profit are not compatible aims.”
The shipwreck is purportedly caused by a combination of bad weather and a mechanical failure; however, the shipping company demonstrates an utter lack of concern for its missing passengers, including Pi's family, “a lowly Indian family with a bother-some cargo,” and for its ship, a “third-rate rustbucket,” because both were deemed economically insignificant. Within the ship itself, a hierarchy exists: there are the officers, who had “little to do with us,” and the passengers, whose physical containment at the bottom of the ship's hold indicates their social position. If social rank, as Martel observes about the animal kingdom, “determines whom [one] associates with and how,” then it also determines one's significance and worth: not only are Pi's parents obliged to relocate from India as the result of their dire financial situation, their disappearance is virtually overlooked because of their low social status.
Martel's novel is a kind of fictional biography, and, as such, displays certain hagiographical tendencies: presumably, Pi's life is meant to be regarded as an exemplar. In this respect, the book also seems to critique the confessional, instructional facet of Defoe's book, which derives its moral orientation from its resemblance to Puritan moral tracts. The autonomy and economic rewards that Crusoe and an upwardly mobile middle class enjoyed may have been the result of a solid work ethic, but they were also the product of imperial exploitation. Martel's choice of an impoverished Indian for his protagonist seems implicitly to make this point about Crusoe's position in the world. Moreover, if Crusoe himself discovers religious belief and experiences a conversion because of his hardships, Pi demonstrates a kind of spiritual precocity since he has explored—even celebrated—three major religious belief systems in advance of his ordeal at sea. A religious conversion is not engendered by his sufferings; instead, religious beliefs and rituals sustain him throughout his perils. Narrative itself becomes a means of sheltering from the cruelties of survival. The two versions of Pi's life conveyed to the Japanese investigators at the end indicate that narrative, like religion, renders the cruelties of survival more tolerable.
Still, the narrator's claim at the opening of the book is somewhat overwrought: that this is a “a story that will make you believe in God” seems to suggest a level of profundity and sophistication that the novel does not quite attain. The expectation built into Martel's fiction is that it will transform reality in order to effect a transformation in its readers, but that expectation overestimates the power of the story. While Life of Pi is, at turns, interesting, clever, and layered, it is also inconsistently compelling and occasionally contrived.