Martel, Yann: Life of Pi

Martel, Yann
Life of Pi
Vintage Canada, 2002
Softcover, 356 pages

First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer 2003

Review by: Kerry Riley

Newsflash!  Yann Martel will have a cameo appearance in the 3-D movie version of Life of Pi due out late in 2012, directed by Ang Lee. As reported in Quill & Quire

It is only after one has finished Yann Martel’s astonishing, multi-award-winning novel, Life of Pi that it occurs to one to wonder just how the author managed to do it. How, exactly, that is, Martel compels the reader to suspend the faculty of reason to such an extent, pulls the reader so completely into his fabulous (meant in all senses of the word) tale of epic adventure and survival, that one is not only prepared to accept the fantastic central premise of the story, along with other assorted wonders but, by story’s end, is, in fact, as exasperated as the central character by the myopic empiricism of those who might (and do) find reason to question the details.

The life in question is that of Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi for short) a mild-mannered Indian teenager, living, at the story’s outset, with his family in Pondicherry, India, where his father manages a zoo. He is, fittingly enough as it turns out, named after a swimming pool, the fateful significance of water established early in his existence. In sharp contrast to his rambunctious older brother Ravi, Pi is a quiet, shy, thoughtful, even unusual child who has confounded his thoroughly secular and forward-looking parents by, quietly and thoughtfully (and, more problematically for the religious elders, simultaneously) adopting Hinduism, Christianity and Islam as his religions of choice. As his disgruntled father says, at one point, “he seems to be attracting religions the way a dog attracts fleas.” Considering what lies ahead, three religions seem barely adequate.

Grown weary of the uncertainty and political upheaval that characterized India under the Ghandi administration, the Patel’s have decided to emigrate to Canada, which seemed to Pi an exotic place, like Timbuktu, “by definition a place permanently far away.” Thus, one fine day in the early summer of 1977, Pi finds himself, along with his family and an assortment of exotic animals, steaming away from India aboard the Tsimtsum, a cargo ship headed for Canada. Disaster strikes without warning, the ship sinks quickly, and Pi, the lone human survivor, finds himself adrift on the wide Pacific, sharing a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutang, an hyena, and last, but certainly not least, Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. It’s the beginning of a 227-day ordeal, an unequaled adventure of great brutality and exquisite beauty, of stomach-twisting terror and fathomless serenity.

A modern day fable, hung, as any modern-day fable must (and should) be, on a sturdy frame of logic, reason, and science, the book provides, on one level, a fascinating case study in animal/human behaviour, as Pi, relying only on his own knowledge of big cat psychology, gleaned mostly from his personal observations at the zoo, devises an ingenious program of negative conditioning which allows him to dominate his dangerous shipmate, and thus to survive.

The daily struggles to procure fresh water, food, and protection from the elements are minutely observed as well, In fact, it is the authority of Martel’s writing on these most practical matters that allows him to lead his readers far into the realm of the fantastic, with relatively little resistance.

It is the nature of human beings, and perhaps all creatures, to reach for something more than mere physical existence, and as Pi’s ordeal progresses, bigger concerns begin to sweep into the metaphysical vacuum that results when life is lived simply as a brutish exercise in survival. Ultimately, the tale examines the nature and consequences of fear, the strength and value of the life force, that powerful and mysterious will to live innate to all animate beings, the relationship between understanding, belief and reality, and what evidence there might be within life to support the idea of the divine.

As Pi’s story so powerfully illustrates, any belief in beauty and meaning in the universe requires a reconciliation with the apparent refutation one finds in the details of existence in the animal world. But even in nature, indisputably red in tooth and claw, one can, as Pi points out, find evidence of what he likes to think of as metaphysical evolution (as opposed to mere physical evolution) — moments of apparent madness, traces of inexplicable out-of-the-box behaviour that “moves life in strange, but saving ways.” A son of a zookeeper, he draws his evidence from that milieu, citing cases of animals forming strange friendships or alliances, which are inexplicable in terms of the behavioural repertoire for the species. As one particular example, he cites the case of a mouse, dropped as food, into a zoo display of vipers, which, unlike all antecedent mice, remained untouched by any of the snakes, and was allowed to build a nest and carry on with the business of being a mouse, in their presence, for a period of several weeks before a young viper (who apparently didn’t know any better) bit and killed the mouse, which was then devoured by an older snake. OK, the example wasn’t perfect, Pi says, but “I’m sure even the adult viper, as it swallowed the mouse, must have felt somewhere in its undeveloped mind, a twinge of regret, a feeling that something greater was just missed, an imaginative leap away from the lonely, crude reality of a reptile.”

Although the dictates of human reason are deferred to throughout much of the story, that faculty’s inadequacy, its essential puniness when confronted with the vastness of existence, is entertainingly revealed in the final, short segment, in which Pi is being interviewed by two insurance investigators, hoping to shed some light on the mystery of the Tsimtsum’s disappearance at sea. Smug and secure in their little empirical world, they, of course, find Pi’s story unbelievable, all the more so because Richard Parker disappeared, unseen by any rescuers, into the Mexican wilderness, the moment the lifeboat washed up on that country’s shores. As a reader, one vaguely remembers sharing some of their objections — before one’s enlightenment that is. Now, however, their slavish worship at the altar of probability seems naive, unimaginative, and quite beside the point. Eventually, to satisfy their need for an explanation that will fit comfortably into their framework for reality, Pi concocts a second, more acceptable story, sans Richard Parker, to account for the 227 days during which he was adrift. However, as he points out, neither story can provide the investigators with what they need — an explanation for the sinking of the ship. If, as in this case, neither story can provide what one seeks, and neither can, ultimately, be proven true or false, which story, Pi asks, is preferable, which is the better story — the one with the animals or the one without? One feels the tug of reason, the attraction of its safety and security, but ultimately one has to admit, as do the investigators, that the story with the animals is the better of the two. And that, dear reader, is precisely what you have been given.

Further Resources

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3 Responses to Martel, Yann: Life of Pi

  1. Pingback: Integrating Can Lit by Subject Area in the Senior Grades: some suggestions | Kerry On Can Lit

  2. Martha Jette says:

    How does one get a book reviewed?

    Martha Jette

    • Hi Martha:

      It would depend on the book. Because I teach full time which limits my reading/reviewing time, and because the blog is dedicated to CanLit, I only review literary fiction from Canadian authors and, also because life is short and one has to make choices, exclude genre fiction as a general rule. But, if the book seems like a good fit and I haven’t thoroughly discouraged you by this point, you can contact me at: and I will give you my mailing address and you could send along a review copy and author package etc. Thanks for the inquiry — always a pleasure to hear from others in the field.

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