Published in The Friday Times, August 20th
After finishing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi I spent the night dreaming of fish guts and maneating forests. Pi Patel’s (or Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a swimming pool in Paris) travelogue takes him literally from India to Mexico, but figuratively to the starving stomach of hell and back.
Pi grows up in Pondicherry in India and has an affinity for religion, any religion, as soon as he is aware of it. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, it all naturally meshes in with his spirit, and the only thing that offers him solace set adrift in the middle of the Pacific with no one except Richard Parker to give him company. His father owns a zoo in Pondicherry, until the family decides to migrate to Canada. Some animals he sells and others he takes by sea, along with his family, to be delivered in Canada and America. Long story short, the ship sinks due to an undisclosed reason and most of the people drown in their sleep. Pi who is awake and on deck escapes, but he is not alone.
At the tender age of sixteen, Pi is adrift in the Pacific, sharing space with a hungry hyena, who kills and devours the zebra, and a drooling orangutan (named Orange Juice), only to become catnip for Richard Parker, who was hiding under some tarpaulin the whole time, because he was seasick.
Of all the odd couples of contemporary fiction, Richard Parker and Pi Patel take the cake. Richard Parker is a voracious young Bengal tiger, who throughout the story rattles the bones of young Pi. Yet Pi has the courage to face this treatment and domesticate the tiger to some extent. Feeding Richard Parker and being alert in case of an attack, turns out to be the only physical reason that keeps Pi alive and occupies his tortured mind. The hero firmly believes that he would not have survived were it not for the thus anti-hero.
The book makes you think that Pi as an actual person and this is a biography, and just in the sense of it being descriptive fiction, the book is a triumph. It is engaging, full of passion, has witty dialogue (“Father saw himself as part of New India – rich, modern and as secular as ice- cream”), has a plot, and a hungry tiger keeping the reader on edge. But there are other aspects to the book as well, metaphors and insights into humanity, spiritual and savage, that reward the reader even after the last page has been closed.
Firstly, Pi’s romance with the three religions in India, and the sensitivity and tolerance of his parents’ is a beautiful message to start off with. Then Martel’s chilling description of a man-eating carnivorous island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where Pi lands to find edible algae, tame meerkats and fresh water. It serves as a point where Pi’s spirit is broken and has to be rebuilt. Pi had been a vegetarian all his life, but being adrift for months makes him a rapacious meat-eater, something his soul has not reconciled with yet. The island that turns toxic at night, is almost a physical manifestation of the condition of his spirit: beautiful and green, yet seething with poison.
Of course the book is not without minor flaws. The first part gives long descriptions about the life of Pi until the drowning of his family. But what happens after this is mostly a blank, where many readers would be curious about his rehabilitation and college life as a student of zoology and religious studies. Secondly, the first part of the book goes back and forth between the voice of the fictional writer and Pi. It forgets about the writer, and is an account in the voice of Pi until the end of the book.
Some readers may find the story disappointing, and with the brutal consumption of raw fish, and the physical torture of the protagonist, even disturbing. But then there are redeeming qualities such as the simple way in which the writer tries to unfold an intense philosophy of faith.
The book won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002. It has fit well into the canon of contemporary fiction that is accessible to teenagers and adults alike, like JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird and even more mature titles like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Agnosticism always confused Pi. Either one believes, or does not, and he is an atheist. The little hero says, “It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap.” In another quote about agnostics, the book
says “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” And in the final few pages the reader is forced to see why belief is what helps people survive. Science is held in high regard in the book and every argument Pi makes, is backed up by scientific reasoning. But it only works to solve his more immediate problems. To solve the bigger problem of not how to survive, but why, requires a little more than logical reasoning.
In the end the reader is given a choice, to either take a leap of faith and believe in the fantastical humane story of survival with the hyena, zebra, orangutan, tiger and meerkats, or in a credible human tale of murder and death on a crowded lifeboat. What version of the human spirit will you choose to embrace?
Please comment and let me know!