Saturday, 24 March 2007

Life of Pi by Yann Martell

The life of Pi by Yann Martel

I found this book in a box, whilst tidying my daughter’s room, and appropriated it. I recall having given it to her as a present several years before, but there was no evidence that she had read it through to the end.

The story concerns a boy who finds himself on a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal Tiger in the Pacific ocean. The sinking of the cargo ship on which he and his family are emigrating to Canada from India does not happen until page 97. Prior to that, his family and youthful enthusiasm for all religions (simultaneously believing in Hinduism. Christianity and Islam) are sketched in, as well as describing the zoo which is father keeps in Pondicherry. The explanation of the presence of the tiger on the lifeboat is that his father was looking after a large number of the zoo animals on the ship to take them to Canada.

The boy, Pi, is initially terrified of the tiger on his small boat; afraid of being attacked, after it has eaten an orang-utang, a zebra and a hyena. He wonders how he can kill or otherwise dispose of the tiger, but realises that his best plan is to keep it alive and to dominate it, as a tiger-tamer does in a circus. This he achieves with great courage and resourcefulness. They both survive a 227 day journey across the ocean to Mexico.

Pi is a modern day Robinson Crusoe, in a more confined space, obtaining food and drink for himself and the tiger. The realism of the descriptions of how he catches fish, distills water and tames the tiger are rivetting and admirable. More than that, the book is suffused with a sense of humour that makes it a pleasant book. The humour overlays a grim reality of incipient death and a stuggle for survival.

The situation on the lifeboat with the tiger subtly starts to become an emblem or parable of the human condition. We see that nature is red in tooth and claw. We realise that one creature must catch, kill and eat another in order to survive. We perceive of each of us (or humanity as a whole) being a speck in a vast universe. Against these things human intelligence, ingenuity, humour, spirit and will-power are the essential weapons.

The last chapter of the book is richly comic, with two Japanese officials (from the maritime ministry) interviewing Pi, the survivor. They cannot believe that the tiger existed. The reader also starts to question whether the tiger existed. According to Pi, it simply jumped ashore and ran into the Mexican jungle, never to be seen again. The officials press Pi to tell the ‘truth’. He comes up with a short and horrifically cannibalistic account of his time on the boat. This involves no animals, but human beings who kill each other. This may seem more plausible to a third party, but not to the reader, who has lived with the tiger in vivid detail for two hundred pages.

The point of the parable is highlighted by a key question just before the end, posed by the religious Indian boy, Pi: “ So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

Both Japanese officials agree that the story with animals is better. The short alternative story of murder and cannibalism is not a reality we want to live with. Better to have a tiger on the boat than look into the dark human heart.

Mr Okamoto says “The story with the animals is the better story”

Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

In a gentle way I guess that Martel is suggesting that we can live better, survive better, by having a belief in God. It was more than human qualities that enables Pi to survive. He acknowledges that he would have died on his own. Keeping the tiger alive kept him alive. Martel is not preaching, but adopting Pascal’s famous ‘wager’ argument that there is nothing to lose from believing in God.

1 comment:

Marco Polo said...

I read this a few years ago. I remember the tiger-in-the-lifeboat part. I also remember feeling that the narrator's claim for the story as being one that will re-inspire a belief in God to be grossly overstated. I remember expecting (when I read it) to eventually come across some incident or passage that would relate to God or a religious belief. I got to the end without finding any. That said, the lifeboat episode is extraordinarily vivid. Yann Martel knows how to tell a story.