“I have a story that will make you believe in God.” — Life of Pi
I usually like to read the book first before seeing the film. I know full well that the two are different forms of artistic medium, but I’m intrigued by the adaptation process of transposing the literary into the visual. So, before Ang Lee’s 3D production comes out in the fall, I’ve recently reread Life of Pi, the 2002 Man Booker Prize winner by Canadian author Yann Martel.
After finishing Midnight’s Children a couple of months ago, also in preparation for the upcoming film version, I feel like I am all toned-up for magic realism. Life of Pi leads me to retake a magical journey. This time around, I am much fonder of the delightful tale, deceptively simple and yet full of insights. The reader might first find the tidbits of animal facts and behavior amusing, only to resonate with their parallels in the human society.
Martel’s allegory is at times humorous, at times poetic and poignant, and throughout, engaging storytelling with heart and soul.
Pondicherry entered the Union of India on November 1, 1954. The Pondicherry zoo is in the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens. It is founded, owned and operated by Santosh Patel, father of Piscine Molitor Patel, more succinctly, Pi, the protagonist of our story.
Pi grows up in the zoo, animal lover by nature, animal keeper by nurture, and God seeker by creation. So when his father decides to sell the zoo, due to a lack of interest from the public, Pi, though young, understands it is only a sign of the times. The zoo and religion, both are misconstrued as confinement:
I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.
Pi’s father plans to leave India and start a new life in Canada. Other than the lack of prospect in the zoo business, Mrs. Ghandi’s government measures also play a part in his decision. In June, 1977, the Patel family steps on board the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum and set sail for Canada, with them are the animals sold to various zoos in North America.
Here begins the adventure of Pi. Unable to sleep one night, Pi walks out of his cabin only to hear an explosion moment later. Thus his life is spared as he is thrown into a lifeboat while his family is still trapped below deck. All alone, 16 year-old Pi looks back from the lifeboat in horror and watches helplessly as the ship carrying his family quickly sinks into the dark, oblivious ocean.
For 227 days, Pi drifts in the vast open sea in a 26-foot lifeboat. Not quite alone, for there with him are a zebra, an orangutan named Orange Juice, a spotted hyena, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Soon, there remain only two of them, Richard Parker by his mere physical might, and Pi, by his intelligence and resourcefulness.
Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind.
Wise beyond his years, Pi has to use available resources to get food and water, set up routines, defend himself from predators, assert his spacial and social dominance, and above all, conquer loneliness and despair. Ironically, in the minimal existence on the 26- foot lifeboat, Pi finds motivation to live in the company of the hungry Bengal tiger Richard Parker. He has successfully turned a threat into comradeship.
After many days, they drift towards an island of meerkats. There Pi finds an abundance of algae and meerkats as food. Complacency begins to set in until the chilling discovery of human teeth drives him out to sea again.
What sets this book apart from just another survival, castaway story is its spiritual quest lyrically expressed. Pi is a deeply religious soul. While he has embraced various paths in his search, his ultimate goal is to find God. It is in his tumultuous ordeal, a tiny speck in the vast ocean, tossed and thrown by unconquerable elements that Pi experiences the presence of God. The author’s seemingly straight forward adventure embeds a magical, existential allegory.
In bare existence, Pi can still find exhiliaration in the smallest of blessings:
… You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you’re at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you’re the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish.
And in the midst of utter despair, the spiritual faculty can still respond. Amidst turmoils and rough seas, Pi rejoices as he beholds the wonders of creation, the inexhaustible menagerie of life, and nature displayed, raw and uncensored. One time, a magnificent bolt of lightning arouses a thunderous cosmic effect without and within, striking him speechless:
This is miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity. .. this thing so vast and fantastic. I was breathless and wordless. I lay back on the tarpaulin, arms and legs spread wide. The rain chillded me to the bone. But I was smiling… I felt genuine happiness.
That momentary happiness is finally realized in true salvation. Pi and Richard Parker are saved as their boat drifts near the shore of Mexico where they are rescued. Richard Parker quickly disappears into the jungle. But the story doesn’t end there. It’s the last bit that makes Life of Pi even more thought-provoking.
Two Japanese employees of the shipping company come to interview Pi in order to find out the cause of the shipwreck. As they question the lone survivor of the Tsimtsum in a Mexican hospital, they respond to Pi’s retelling of his ordeal with polite skepticism and denial. The magical is not easily accepted by realists.
Author Yann Martel tells us a compelling survival story only to have it negated by two people convinced of its implausibility, rationalists bent on seeking evidence based only on reasoning. Fantasy and imagination are often readily presumed to be falsehood.
With Pi’s tale being dismissed by the interviewers, Martel has ingeniously crafted an allegory showing us the value of stories, teasing us with the definition of truth and reality, while transporting us to a realm beyond the limits of the intellect… maybe on that level, somehow, like Pi, we can get a glimpse of God.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Vintage Canada Edition, 2002, 354 pages.
The three cover images on this post: Vintage Canada edition, U.S. Mariner Books edition, and movie-tie-in edition coming out October, 2012, also from Mariner Books.
This review has been published in the August 31, 2012 print issue of Asian American Press. Online edition here. For those curious about what Arti is like, the mystery is revealed there.
CLICK HERE for a list of highly anticipated film adaptations from literary sources coming out this fall.
I had the pleasure to meet author Yann Martel in a reading two years ago. He was very friendly and affable, took time to chat with me, signed my copy of the book and another one I’d intended for my son. Not a tale, here are the photos:
In the title page of my son’s copy, he wrote:
May you reach the coast of Mexico.”
Don’t we all need to find shore to land?