Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Life of Pi
319pp, Canongate, £12.99
In the author's note that prefaces this vertiginously tall tale, Yann Martel blends fact and fiction with wily charm. Yes, he'd published two books that failed to shake the world - eager, studious-young-man's fiction with a strain of self-conscious experimentalism - and taken off to India nursing the faltering seeds of another. But no, he didn't there meet a wise old man who directed him to a putative "main character", now living back in Martel's native Toronto: a certain Piscine Molitor or Pi Patel, named for a French swimming pool and nicknamed for an irrational number, who in the mid-1970s survived 227 days lost at sea with a Royal Bengal tiger.
Despite the extraordinary premise and literary playfulness, one reads Life of Pi not so much as an allegory or magical-realist fable, but as an edge-of-seat adventure. When the ship in which 16-year-old Pi and his zookeeping family are to emigrate from India to Canada sinks, leaving him the sole human survivor in a lifeboat on to which barge a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan and a bedraggled, seasick tiger, Pi is determined to survive the impossible. "I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day." And Martel writes with such convincing immediacy, seasoning his narrative with zoological verisimilitude and survival tips about turtle- fishing, solar stills and keeping occupied (the lifeboat manual notes that "yarn spinning is highly recommended"), that disbelief is suspended, like Pi, above the terrible depths of the Pacific ocean.
Martel dextrously prepares us for the seafaring section in the first part of the book, which describes Pi's sunny childhood in the Pondicherry zoo and his triple conversion to Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. We learn much about animal behaviour - flight distances, aggression, social hierarchy - which is later translated to Pi's survival tactics on the lifeboat. Like a lion tamer in the circus ring, Pi must convince the tiger that he is the super-alpha male, using toots on his whistle as a whip and the sea as a source of treats, marking the boundary of his territory on the boat with urine and fierce, quaking stares.
The ongoing miracle of his existence at sea is also foreshadowed by his spiritual life on land; Pi is a creature of faith (or faiths) who sees eternally renewed wonder in God and his creation. There is joy on the lifeboat - as well as horror, and gore, and "tense, breathless boredom". He had chosen his irrational nickname because of his schoolmates' insistence on pronouncing Piscine as "pissing", but he also
has a believer's scepticism about reason, "that fool's gold for the bright". In one of the many elegant, informative digressions in the book's first section, Martel takes us through instances of zoomorphism, whereby an animal takes a human or another animal to be one of its own species, and the usual predator-prey relationship is suspended. Pi characterises this adaptive leap of faith as "that measure of madness that moves life in strange but saving ways"; in other words, his coexistence with the tiger is possible precisely because it has never happened before.
Faith and science, two marvelling perspectives on the world, coexist throughout the book in a fine, delicate balance, as when the two Mr Kumars, one Pi's atheist teacher and the other the baker who introduces him to Islam, meet at the zoo to "take the pulse of the universe" and wonder together, in opposing ways, at the sheer surprisingness of the zebra and its stripes. In its subject and its style, this enormously lovable novel is suffused with wonder: a willed innocence that produces a fresh, sideways look at our habitual assumptions, about religious divisions, or zoos versus the wild, or the possibility of freedom. As Martel promises in his author's note, this is fiction probing the imaginative realm with scientific exactitude, twisting reality to "bring out its essence".
The realism that carried the reader in the erratic wake of the small boy and large tiger falters as they begin to waste away and die - and then the book gets seriously strange, with ghostly visitations and impossible islands, as though Martel wants not so much to test our credulity as entirely to annihilate it. It's an odd tactic, though it does leave a fertile interpretative space, a dark undercurrent below the narrative's main structure, which has the neatness of fable.
Though horrors are hinted at, "this story", as the book had unfashionably assured us, "has a happy ending." Pi runs safely aground in Mexico, and the tiger about which he still has "nightmares tinged with love", which saved his life by coming between him and a more terrifying enemy, despair, leaps ashore and disappears into the jungle, denying him an anthropomorphic goodbye growl. Of course, the officials who arrive to investigate the ship's sinking don't believe him for a moment. In a daring coda, Pi offers them another story, which turns the tale on its head and seals Martel's extraordinary, one-off achievement. He had written earlier about how a blinkered dedication to factuality can lead one to "miss the better story". The better story has a tiger in it.