Life of Pi by Yann Martel “LIFE OF PI” BY YANN MARTEL WON THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE IN 2002. It is a weird and wonderful book telling the singularly unlikely story of the shipwreck of a young Indian, Piscine, the Pi of the title, who traverses the seas in a lifeboat for 227 days in the company of a four hundred and fifty pound tiger, and self-evidently survives to tell the tale. Such is Martel’s skill that he makes this scenario seem not just likely but inevitable and invests it with numerous reflections on humanity, God, animality, nature and civilisation, and the power of narrative.
Martel’s quirky characters and superb descriptions make it a page-turner. It is also profoundly symbolic, with the name of the sunken ship, Tsimtsum, referring to a mystical concept – in the Jewish Kabbalah – of the death of God, by which He creates the universe. The tiger also has a place in Buddhist mythology, as the symbol of passion that must be tamed by the adept. Other literary allusions are to Blake’s Tyger, who cannot be framed as Pi does, and the Ancient Mariner – though Pi keeps his animal alive rather than killing it. Jonah and the Whale also come to mind.
The hero of the book is the son of an Indian zookeeper in the former French colony of Pondicherry (famous for the ashram of the mystic teacher, Sri Aurobindo). The father is a ‘modern’ Indian and free of religious prejudice, as he thinks, but has a magical rapport with the animals, which he transmits to his son. The name Piscine was given by a family friend with an obsession for swimming. Mocked for his name, Piscine turns the tables by insisting on being called Pi. Thus the watery element is combined with the idea of a circle, symbol of perfection. Pi is drawn to the three religions of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, which are all wonderful until they begin a literal fight for the exclusive possession of Pi’s soul. Pi, however, keeps his belief in God but refuses to confine himself to one faith. Piscine’s religious faith is coupled with his knowledge of captive animals and brought together in the ordeal, which begins when the ship, the Tsimtsum, on which his family is immigrating to Canada, along with some animals to be sold to American zoos, is shipwrecked inexplicably.
After the sinking of the Tsimtsum, Pi is caught between death by the ‘fire’ of the Tiger and the water of the ocean in which he drifts. Teased into a lifeboat occupied by ‘Richard Parker’, the tiger that Pi’s father is taking to a Canadian zoo by a crew obviously hoping that Pi will become the Tiger’s victim, he finds himself on the boat with a hyena, an orang-utan and a zebra, as well as the tiger. The life and death of these creatures is movingly described without any fake anthropocentrism. The hideous hyena, maternal orang-utan and wounded zebra are all beautifully rendered, but the outcome is never in doubt – Piscine and Richard Parker are to face it out in the voyage of 227 days, interrupted only by a blind Frenchman who suffers the inevitable fate, while the cunning of Pi in facing down the tiger is rewarded with survival. The psychological duel between man and tiger is grippingly told. Pi applies all his knowledge of captive animals in forcing the tiger to recognise his own territory and confine Richard Parker to a space under the tarpaulin where he can be confined. The tiger realises only Pi can keep him supplied in food and water, and in this way the tiger and man become symbiotic survivors.
Near the end of the ordeal the two protagonists land on an island of cannibalistic algae that can turn salt water into sweet and supports a floating population of meerkats. I found this episode strange and wondered over the symbolism of it. It is perhaps connected to the rebirth symbolism of the story. Finally, the duo – after the episode with another shipwrecked mariner – land on the coast of Mexico, where Richard Parker stalks off with not a glance back while Pi is looked after by poor villagers. A final twist in the tale occurs near the end when Pi recounts his story to two Japanese loss adjustors who find his story literally incredible. He then changes the story to make the hyena into a malicious cook, the orang-utan into his mother and Richard Parker into himself. Which is the true story? The book or the revised version that the Japanese believe? Of course, neither, since all the stories are fictions, but it leaves the reader wondering about reality and fiction and what we really believe when we read a story.
I wonder if this is probably going to be the sole book by which Martel will be remembered. The reclusive Canadian went on to publish a holocaust story, described by the Boston Herald as ‘Whiney, twee, and egregiously ill-conceived’, which is about the opposite of what one could say about Life of Pi. An inspired work of imagination and originality, Pi deserves its acclaim.Visit Amazon for more reviews and perhaps to buy “Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel by following this link.
– Golden Langur