- Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Canongate, 319 pp, £12.99, May 2002, ISBN 1 84195 245 1
Yann Martel’s novel tells the story of a 16-year-old Indian boy who is shipwrecked in the Pacific and survives 227 days at sea in the company of a Bengal tiger. Since this fact is now well known, as well known as the fact that the book recently won the Booker Prize, Life of Pi risks being shrunk to the monad of its narrative ‘premise’, like any Hollywood concept movie. Doubtless, people will choose to read it insofar as they can tolerate this premise. And the reduction of the novel to its magic realist challenge would not be unfair, since the book is constituted of little other than this singular story, and moreover is explicitly – that is to say, theoretically – about the inevitability of the magical in storytelling. Martel’s novel is evangelical in its defence of the shimmeringly implausible. ‘If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for?’ the survivor asks, once he has found land and is being interviewed by two investigators who do not credit his tale. According to Lisa Jardine, who chaired this year’s Booker judges, Martel has described his novel as one ‘that will make you believe in God’. Life of Pi is proud to be a delegate for magic realism, and wears a big badge so that we don’t forget it.
Of course, in a proper paradox, this magical story is made plausible, and vivid and dramatic, only by the careful application of conventional realist techniques. If we do indeed come to believe this story of survival, if we hardly ever feel that our credulity is being taken for a reckless voyage, it is because Martel patiently builds his narrative case: ensuring that no detail is too tiny for examination; quietly folding in a vast amount of research (largely zoological and botanical); taking care to observe the laws of physics and the natural world; and generally grounding his watery tale in the loam of the likely. Martel proves, by skilful example, that realism is narrative’s great master, that it schools even its own truants. He reminds us in fact that realism is already magical, an artifice-in-waiting.
The novel prepares its plausibility by solidly introducing its protagonist and narrator, Pi Patel. The first hundred pages of the book concern Pi’s childhood in India, and are full of charm. Pi’s father is the director of a zoo, so his son grows up with a wide understanding of animals. He tells us – this will be important – that animals do not really crave large open spaces, but need above all to know the borders of their habitat, however small, and to know who is the leader of the pack. Pi (shortened from Piscine, teased at school as ‘Pissing’), who is now grown up and living in Canada, recounts his Indian life with a childlike ingenuity. Characteristic of the book’s easy and likeable spirit is the way that Pi tells us about his early pan-religiousness. A Hindu by origin, he stumbled one day into a hill-town church and was captivated. A friendly priest led the little boy to Christ, and ever after, Pi tells us, he could not help thanking Lord Krishna for sending Jesus his way. A similar encounter in a mosque rendered Pi a worshipper in three different traditions. He tells us that since then – and despite the ordeal of the shipwreck – he has been a believer; Martel is already announcing his real theme: ‘It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw,’ Pi says, ‘but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane . . . but we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.’
Most of this Indian section, which like the rest of the book rides on a great deal of research, is smoothly convincing; we sanction it without quarrel as the prelude to the real event, the shipwreck. If Martel’s writing falters here, it is occasionally in its nervous abundance, as if, ironically enough, he were afraid that we didn’t always believe him. These are moments when he overloads the book with his acquired Indian exotica. Thus when Pi tells us all the reasons he is a Hindu, we feel oppressed by the unnatural bulk of his list and feel it to be the blazon of an outsider:
I am a Hindu because of sculptured cones of red kumkum powder and baskets of yellow turmeric nuggets, because of garlands of flowers and pieces of broken coconut, because of the clanging of bells to announce one’s arrival to God, because of the whine of the reedy nadaswaram and the beating of drums, because of the patter of bare feet against stone floors down dark corridors pierced by shafts of sunlight, because of the fragrance of incense, because of flames of arati lamps circling in the darkness, because of bhajans being sweetly sung, because of elephants standing around to bless, because of colourful murals telling colourful stories, because of foreheads carrying, variously signified, the same word – faith.
A similarly aesthetic list by an Indian novelist about a Canadian Episcopalian would almost certainly sound ridiculous; Westerners are too easily entranced by lovingly lacquered ‘Indianness’.
Pi Patel grows up during the troubled 1970s, and eventually his father, an ardent despiser of Mrs Gandhi, decides to move the family to Canada. They take passage on a Japanese cargo ship, along with some of the zoo’s animals, which have been sold to institutions around the world. The ship’s sinking is swiftly, almost sketchily done, as if Martel were acknowledging that the real business of his story lies just ahead, and that he will not be tediously sequential. So, suddenly the ship is sinking, the animals appear to have been let out of their cages and are stampeding, and Pi is thrown into a lifeboat. There seem to be no other survivors. Pi is alone in his large boat – along with a tiger, a wounded zebra, a hyena and an orangutan.
The next two hundred pages, the gist of the book, concern life on this boat. The hyena quickly consumes the zebra and the orangutan, and is in turn eaten by the tiger. And then the reader settles down to the familiar pleasures of a survivor story. We expect, and are granted, vivacious descriptions of storms; the beating of the sun and the lashing of the rain; the desperate search for food and water once the boat’s rations expire; spiritual distress and febrile hope; the sighting of a ship which of course sails right past the lifeboat; the firing of flares; and a brief respite on a tiny island. The only peculiarity is that these conventions are entwined around the story of a man and a tiger, and much of Martel’s talent is employed in bringing to life this unlikely relationship.
At first Pi cowers at one end of the boat, while the tiger dozes at the other end under a tarpaulin. But soon it becomes clear to Pi that he will have to master the animal or become its victim. In essence, he recreates the atmosphere of the zoo, feeding and watering a beast whose habitat he controls not by metal bars but by authority – he uses his SOS whistle like a circus-master, to keep the tiger in its lair. A relationship develops, one made of love and dependence and fear. If Pi becomes something of an animal during his ordeal, then the tiger becomes something of a person, the companion that Pi needs and cherishes.
Survivor yarns, like prison stories, gain their narrative power from the fetishising of the minimal. Suddenly the banal – eating, defecating, cleaning, sleeping – is of life and death importance; thus, ideologically, tales of survival represent the triumph of the domestic. They are the most bourgeois form of story and hence the natural ally of conventional realism. They are adventure stories which are largely comprised of the most unadventurous elements. Notwithstanding the presence of a tiger, or rather because of the presence of a tiger, Martel labours to reproduce for us the daily struggle of Pi’s existence.
Again, a great amount of research is compacted into fictional form. We learn, through the narrator, how to catch a sea turtle and how to drink its blood and eat its flesh (we also discover what this blood tastes like). We learn how to catch flying fish, and that a dorado in its death throes flashes different colours in rapid succession (‘I felt I was beating a rainbow to death’). In addition, we are witnesses at the killing of a shark, a short-tailed shearwater and a ‘masked booby’ (a bird). It is indeed a wondrous tale, unflaggingly compelling and always controlled by accountable prose. Here, Martel describes lightning at sea:
Suddenly a bolt struck much closer . . . There was an explosion of hot air and hot water. For two, perhaps three seconds, a gigantic, blinding white shard of glass from a broken cosmic window danced in the sky, insubstantial yet overwhelmingly powerful. Ten thousand trumpets and twenty thousand drums could not have made as much noise as that bolt of lightning; it was positively deafening. The sea turned white and all colour disappeared. Everything was either pure white light or pure black shadow. The light did not seem to illuminate so much as to penetrate. As quickly as it had appeared, the bolt vanished – the spray of hot water had not finished landing upon us and already it was gone. The punished swell returned to black and rolled on indifferently.
In such a passage, the writing manages its vividness not by flouncing into Fine Writing but by combining a literary register with Pi’s simpler, earnest voice (‘it was positively deafening’). Still, although Pi certainly has a voice, the literary cost of his boyish naivety is that he is somewhat empty as a character. Of course, the story holds him in its tight structure, and binds his motives to the mast: what we know about him is that he has to survive and will survive, and for a long time this is enough to be going on with. But not for ever, and if Life of Pi finally feels, for all its marvels, like a rather slight book, it is because Pi is rather slight, too.
One difficulty is that Pi retains, throughout his torments, the jaunty tone of the novel’s earlier, Indian section. For instance, when he finds the lifeboat’s survival manual, written by a Royal Navy commander, he tells us: ‘The injunction not to drink urine was quite unnecessary. No one called “Pissing” in his childhood would be caught dead with a cup of pee at his lips, even alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific. And the gastronomic suggestions only confirmed to my mind that the English didn’t know the meaning of the word food.’ Well, very cute, but hardly the tone in which a teenager, alone in the middle of the Pacific, would frame his thoughts, nor likely to be the tone in which a middle-aged Canadian would recall those experiences. In order to represent anguish, it is necessary for representation – i.e. language – to become anguished, as William Golding in Pincher Martin knew. Pi never stops being charming.
More damaging to Pi’s integrity as a fictional character is that, having been established as a boy with an omnivorous spiritual hunger, he hardly ever thinks of God while at sea. There are passing references to daily prayers, and a reference to spiritual distress, but essentially the matter of religion is dropped until the end of the story. We are not privy to any theological anguish or questioning. The experience of losing his entire family and being abandoned to sharks seems not to stir Pi to religious rebellion. Just before he reaches land, he delivers this bland closure: ‘High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts . . . It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.’ Or turn away from God? It is not Pi’s theological conclusion – his religious fidelity – that puzzles so much as his oddly formulaic, empty method of reaching it. Martel certainly ensures that his tale feels real, but there is a sense in which Pi does not. And so we tend to credit the plausibility of the story rather than believing its reality.
The absence of real religious discussion during the survival story is all the more odd given the novel’s coda, which is explicitly about faith and belief. Two Japanese civil servants are dispatched to Mexico, where Pi has washed up. They interrogate him about his experiences, and make it clear that they don’t believe a word of it. Martel reproduces a transcript of the conversation, and the novel ends with the investigators’ official report, which suggests that they have finally come round to Pi’s story. The reader is bristlingly on Pi’s side, and agrees with him when he objects to the investigators that we all believe in many things that seem implausible – like love and God. ‘Be excessively reasonable,’ Pi warns, ‘and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.’ The scientists, however, insist that Pi tell them the truth. But wouldn’t the truth just be another story? Pi asks. ‘Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention . . . Doesn’t that make life a story? . . . I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t ask you to see higher or further or differently.’
Thus the novel sermonisingly makes its Postmodern pitch. It is indeed true that the way we believe in stories is similar to the way we believe in God (though there is an important difference between the idea that believing in God is like believing in a story and the idea that God is only a story). Fiction has a theological dimension, and magic realism might be said to be merely a branch of Scripture fixated on the acceptance of miracles. But it is the unexceptionable nature of Pi’s theorising, its commonplace and modish ordinariness, that so disappoints. Hundreds of days at sea and this is what Pi is talking about, as if he were at an editorial meeting of Social Text? (Ironically enough, Pi’s speech is also wildly implausible; Martel again seems to have forgotten that his survivor is still only 16.)
Nothing marks Life of Pi as a contemporary Postmodern novel more strongly than its theological impoverishment (for all that it seems to scream theological richness): instead of being interested in the theological basis of Pi’s soul, it is really interested only in the theological basis of storytelling. The former is or could be a day to day, lived reality; the latter is only a piquant but now familiar contemporary abstraction.
Martel seems to want us to think of Defoe – he secretes a mention of Robinson Crusoe in the first part of the book. But the invocation is risky. Defoe’s story is an anguished inquiry into questions of predestination and election, freedom and theodicy. To be shipwrecked, for Defoe, is in some way to be theologically shipwrecked: a strenuous journey of spiritual reconstruction awaits. Life of Pi, by contrast, prefers whisperingly to raise the possibility of such an inquiry – it is a novel about our capacity to believe, the jacket promises – only to bury this notion in the softer and more cosily recessed questions of storytelling and credulity. Martel has something (but only something pretty ordinary) to say about the reader’s credulity; but Defoe would have taken such discussion for granted and would have concentrated instead on Pi’s credulity, a much deeper inquiry. It is fine to tell contemporary readers that their God is or should really be Story; most of them think that anyway. But who is Pi’s God? That is the deeper, and unanswered question. After all, it is by experiencing Pi’s credulity that our own credulity might have been not only seduced but engaged and challenged. I fear that Yann Martel has only seduced ours and then in effect congratulated himself for doing it so vividly.