Monday, July 4, 2011

Book Review: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Harcourt; (June 4, 2002)
ISBN: 0151008116

The vacuum created since the last great story about a boy and a tiger fell from grace, victim to the zealots of political correctness, has been filled, by a Booker prize winner no less. And although Piscine "Pi" Molitor Patel, who has been named lovingly after a Parisian swimming pool, is a much more complex character than Little Black Sambo and his Bengal tiger doesn't run round in circles turning himself into ghi, there is salvation every bit as magical in both stories.

Life of Pi is the story of an Indian boy, one of two son's of the Pondicherry zoo owner, with a keen insight into animal behavior garnered from growing up in their company and an innate passion for the varieties of religious experience. In his early teens, the family abandons the zoo, sells off the animals and embarks on a Japanese cargo ship to emigrate to Canada accompanied by some of the animals en route to North American zoos. In the middle of the night, there is a shipwreck and it seems that Pi is the only one saved. Most of the rest of the book is the narration of his fantastic experiences and adventures during his more than two hundred days in a lifeboat before he reaches the shores of Mexico.

This really doesn't give the ending away, as since Pi Patel is the narrator of this epochal journey over the Pacific Ocean in the company of, a hyena, and orangutan and a very oddly named Bengal tiger, and as since an introductory section assures the reader that said Pi Patel has grown to maturity, pursued university degrees in religion and zoology, and raised a family of his own, there is little suspense about the ultimate fate of the hero. It is the nature of first person narratives that the narrator must live to tell the tale, be it on the open sea in the company of man eating tigers or marooned on some island, unless the author decides to indulge in some sort of trickery, of the "by the time you have read this I will be dead" variety, or "I put this manuscript in this bottle (although our hero does put a message in a bottle) in the hopes that it will be found," and so on. Thankfully Martel does not indulge.

Suspense is not really what he is after, and if there is a surprise at the end, it is not tacked on to get the author out of a corner he has ineptly managed to paint himself into, rather it is a significant insight into what has gone before. And this surprise one cannot give away.

Pi is an engaging narrator. Witty: of an orangutan arriving at his life boat floating on a barge of bananas as the bananas break apart and float away, laments that the bananas split. Clever: in the confines of his life boat he manages to mark his territory and keep it free from the various beasts who share his world. Humble: Over and over again his emphasis is on the fortuitous fate that saves him--flying fish bombard his boat providing divine manna, a wounded zebra serves to temporarily satisfy a threatening hyena, the tiger is sea sick allowing time for safety precautions.

His is a miraculous story; a story, he says, that must make you believe in God. For the survival of a lone Indian boy on a miniature version of Noah's ark crossing the Pacific Ocean to arrive in Mexico can only be attributed to some kind of divine intervention, especially if one is prone in that direction from the start. Religiosity is perhaps the most notable of Pi's character traits even before he leaves his home in Pondicherry to emigrate to Canada with the remains of their zoo. Religion, every and all religions, have for him a wonder and a truth. Born a Hindu, he chooses to be baptized a Christian and practice Islam, not instead, but as well. Crosses, prayer rugs, statues of Ganesha are to Pi what cricket bats and soccer balls are to other children. It is not one, then another--a bouncing between the truths of first one and than the other, but rather an embracing of all at once. Truth is in God, and any religion which recognizes that is a religion worth pursuing, and the pursuit of any one faith need not interfere with the pursuit of the others.

Moreover it is not only in the miraculous event that the signature of the divine is to be evidenced. It is in the everyday course of life. Pi's religion is an updated version of nineteenth century "natural supernaturalism," not with the intent to secularize the divine, but rather to re-emphasize the divinity of what is too often taken for the commonplace, to assert that all that we see, all that we experience is nothing less than the divine work of God. But since we experience it so often, we lose sight of its miraculous nature; we become inured to it like a nurse to the suffering of a patient. Our failure to recognize the miraculous for what it is makes it no less a miracle. It is simply testimony to our own lack of understanding. What is needed is some catalytic event to awaken us to the miracle that is in the life all around us. That event might be a cataclysmic shipwreck, or it might be an intuitive insight that comes from the everyday handiwork of God that surrounds us daily: "the splendor in the grass, the glory in the flower."

Martel's descriptions of Pi's sudden awareness of the spirit of God are reminiscent of some of the great passages of mystical vision in English literature: Arthur's insight about vision at the end of Holy Grail episode in Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," Wordsworth's description of the mystical experience in "Tintern Abbey," Carlyle in "Sartor Resartus." All eloquent testaments to moments of spiritual awakening that seem to come from nowhere in the midst of everyday activity.

Carlyle is perhaps the lesser known. In a chapter called "The Everlasting No," he describes how in a miserable emotional state brought about by the study of "profit and loss philosophies," his hero Teufelsdrockh was walking down the dirty little Rue Saint-Thomas de L'Enfer

. . .when, all at once, there rose a Thought in me, and I asked myself: What art thou afraid of? Wherefore, like a coward, dost thou forever pip an whimper, and go cowering and trembling? Despicable biped! what is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee? Death? Well Death; and the pangs of Tophet too, and all that the Devil and Man may or can do against thee! Hast
thou not a heart; canst thou not suffer whatsoever it be; and as a Child of Freedom, though outcast, trample Topet itself under thy feet, while it consumes thee? Let it come, then; I will meet it and defy it !' And as I so thought, there rushed like a stream of fire over my whole soul; and I shook base Fear away from me forever. I was strong, of unknown strength; a spirit, almost a god.

The emphasis is on the sudden awareness: the overwhelming insight that comes upon one on an ordinary day in an ordinary place and changes one forever. Carlyle in fact claims that this passage is a fictionalized account of his own spiritual conversion in Leith Walk in Edinburgh. Pi's mystical experience, although not grounded in intellectual despair, bursts just as suddenly from what should have been an everyday normal walk:

One such time I left town and on my way back, at a point where the land was high and I could see the sea to my let and down the road a long ways, I suddenly felt I was in heaven. The spot was in fact no different from when I passed it not long before, but my way of seeing it had changed. The feeling, a paradoxical mix of pulsing energy and profound peace, was intense and blissful. Whereas before the road, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun all spoke differently to me, now they spoke one language of unity. Tree took account of road, which was aware of air, which was mindful of sea, which shared things with sun. Every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbor, and all was kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the centre of a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah.

And this is only one of several such experiences.

What he discovers is the essential spirit that runs through and unifies all things. Religion is light. It illuminates. It does not contradict science; it completes science. It is doubt that is the problem of modern society, skepticism, agnosticism. These things paralyze. Science, since it has a faith in an order and unifying principle is simply another kind of religion, one to be embraced like all others. Religion and science complement one another; so one can with all reason pursue both science and religion as does Pi.

These theological ruminations are seamlessly woven into a fabulous adventure filled with humor, horror and, humanity.

From Pi's decision to change his name to Pi because his schoolmates torture him by mispronouncing his real name as if it were a bodily function to the transcripts of his taped interviews with the Japanese investigators about the sinking of the ship, there is a kind of insouciant naiveté and ultimate faith in a higher power that makes it possible to go on in the face of the horror and evil that are the inevitable in life. Whether it be a graphic description of zebra eaten from the inside as it still struggles for life, or the loss of one's family at sea, there is the essential need to go on. There is evil in the world. There is good. It is not for man to question evil or God; it is for man to find a way to live with that evil, understanding that he is not the center of that creation, but merely one cog in a greater machine.

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