The Search for the Better Story
( A Book Review of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi )
Life of Pi is many things. It’s zoology… it’s spirituality… it’s an adventure… it’s a survival tale… and most importantly it’s about faith.
Part narrative, part discourse, Yann Martell tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, or Pi as he should like to be called, and his atypical growing up years in Pondicherry as a young Hindu boy of devout, spiritual practice subscribing to two more religious beliefs, i.e. Christianity and Islam, and his scientific upbringing that provided him an understanding of wildlife and fondness for nature by means of the family-owned zoo.
Political unrest makes the family decide to search for greener pastures, and so they sold some of the zoo animals, while keeping others and transporting it with them on their voyage to Winnipeg where a new home and a wealth of possibility for new experience and adventure await the Patels.
As the Japanese cargo ship chugs its way to Canada, no religion, however, prevents the tragedy of its sinking caused by a late-night accident pulling with it to the bottom of the Pacific Pi’s family, their remaining animals, and everything he knew of his Indian home. Now a castaway in a lifeboat, his only companion a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger, Pi must not only count on his instincts to survive, but also his unwavering faith.
Life of Pi is not only a book full of surprises, it’s also in a league of its own. Martel’s tone, fresh and youthful, is one of the qualities that first greeted me once I started to read it: it’s like getting an earnest handshake from a friend you just met, his hand’s firmness, Martel’s precise and richly detailed prose, makes you wonder as if you’ve always known him for a long time. It delivers the intended impression to make it last without being over-the-top.
And lasts it did, for the Canadian writer’s wit is the book’s sustaining power all throughout — even after you close the book in reflection… or genuflection.
Pi’s character just leaps out of the pages: his life, his experiences, his humiliations prompted by a burdensome and, I admit it, funny name (that sound likes “pissing”), along with the things he learns surrounds the reader. You can’t help it; the character just lives in your head. Honestly, from time to time, in quiet moments, I still think of him.
Then the adventure of being marooned and lost at sea ensues, forming the central narrative of the book as well as its thematic underpinnings. It greatly reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea where man is pit against the unyielding and merciless power of nature. It’s a journey that warrants three hundred or so pages to be told and must be witnessed and lived wherein every page brings us to extremes for in Pi’s condition danger is found within and without. It’s on this section where the contrast of animal, brutal, instinctive nature is at odds with the human, civilized principled and controlled nature. However, when time goes, the possibility of rescue uncertain, and the situation more severe, the human expectedly deteriorates into animal — yet reversibly at times the animal becomes human.
The scenario Martel throws at the reader is indeed quaint, but the bond it forms transcends between human and animal, perhaps even more for Pi’s fate, though he did not initially understand why, at the hands of the ocean’s benevolent hostility gave him the time (and the reader as well) to look closely at the world, our relationship to all life within it, even to know the face of God.
While the reader can initially mistake that the book is written in the first point of view, I like to believe the story comes to us from the mind of the listener, the way a transcribed interview follows. The listener dictates the flow of the story, and proof of this is the side commentaries interspersed in the book.
This significant narrative element then imposes why Martel throws a curve to the reader near Pi’s story’s conclusion. Whether one finds it frustrating or confusing, this is one of the most innovative way of delivering a book’s thematic thrust: the search for the better story. As Pi sees it, faith is built upon how we interpret and understand the world. Throughout the book we are left with a story so intricate in certain points, it even challenges one’s limit of credulity.
All of this then turns into a choice: do we accept it or not?
Can the essential truth, the vital message, take precedence over factual circumstances and scientific plausibility?
This is what I only know for certain: renouncing essential experience to practical reality makes one lose oneself, one’s soul. Truth will never fit into a box or a mold one chooses to trust or believe.
Pi deems God wants and believes the better story.
At the end of Part One the author states: “This story has a happy ending.” Indeed it has, for whichever you chose, you choose your peace.
Uplifting, heart-breaking, and mind-opening, Life of Pi is an inspired work conveying a life’s worth of contemplation expressing fundamental ideas with unmatched efficiency and purity.
This book is a part of Read the Book, See the Film reading project.