Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Life of Pi

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

A boy survives for 227 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean after the ship carrying him and his family, along with a collection of zoo animals, from India to Canada sinks. He washes ashore in Mexico and is rescued by fishermen. He is the sole survivor of the catastrophe and the only possible source of information about why the ship sank. Representatives of the Japanese owners of the ship interview him in the hospital where he is recovering and the boy tells them how he survived the ordeal. That is the story in 90 words of “dry, yeastless, factuality” as Pi would say.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a much better telling of this same story. Actually, the book contains two versions of the story: the first recounted by Pi to the author and the second in response to doubts about the details of Pi’s story. The author (who is a fictional creation of Yann Martel) begins by telling his own story of how a bad case of writers’ block caused him to travel to India in search of inspiration. In Pondicherry, a town in a small former French colony in southeast India, the author meets a man by the name of Francis Adirubasamy who claims to know a story which he says “will make you believe in God”. Over tea, Mr. Adirubasamy tells the author the story of Pi and how the boy survived the sinking of the cargo ship, Tsimtsum. Intrigued, the author travels to Toronto, Canada, to meet Pi in person, and Pi, now a middle-aged man, agrees to tell the his story of survival. In 100 chapters.

Pi’s story is bracketed at the beginning by the “author’s note” and at the end by the transcript of the Japanese inquiry into the lost ship. These two sections serve to set the book up as a work of non-fiction, even though the reader understands that this is not the case. Life of Pi does not fit perfectly into a single genre: it has elements of magical realism and allegory, it is an epic tale of survival, and it is an analysis of man’s ongoing effort to rise above our animal instincts. Mr. Martel weaves information about post-colonial India, zoo-keeping practices, religious belief systems, and philosophy together to create one of the finest examples of story-telling published within the last decade.

Life of Pi appeals to a broad spectrum of readers thanks to Mr. Martel’s delightful writing style. Within the story are parables giving insight into Pi’s character as well as anecdotes which explain his religious beliefs (Hindu, Christian, and Muslim simultaneously), his name (Picine Molitar Patel), and his knowledge of animal behavior. The book is a pleasure to read for those seeking entertainment, but scratch the surface and Mr. Martel opens windows into ancient cultures, religions, and myths through the deft use of symbolism and bits of history. For example, the ill-fated ship was named Tsimtsum, a Kabalistic term in the Hebrew language describing how God withdrew from a part of infinity to enable our world to exist. The sinking of the Tsimtsum created a space for Pi’s story to unfold in the same way that Pi makes room within himself in order to survive the ordeal.

Pi, as a young boy, is wise and rational as well as emotionally innocent. He is curious and asks many questions in his search for deeper understanding. It is this aspect of his personality which saves him. In primary school, he suffers endless teasing about the name, Picine (French for swimming pool), which his school mates pronounce as “pissing”. In his first act of self-preservation, he decides to establish himself as Pi on the first day of his first year of middle school. In mathematics, pi (Π) is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and is usually expressed as 3.1415 or 22/7. This is important symbolically because pi (Π), which was discovered by the ancient Babylonians about 2000 years before the birth of Jesus, is always the same no matter how big or small the circle. Pi, the character, the deep thinker, loves this aspect of his new name.

Pi’s father owns a zoo and as a matter of his childrens' safety demonstrates the nature of predation by putting a live goat in a hungry tiger’s enclosure, with predictable results. Better to know first hand that predators kill without remorse, says the father to his sons, than to be misled by seemingly placid behavior. The Pondicherry Zoo is famous for its goats because they happily share an enclosure with a formerly lonely rhinoceros. This yields another lesson in which the father explains how surviving an extraordinary situation sometimes depends on unlikely alliances.

Survival is the most obvious theme of the book: surviving childhood humiliations, the everyday dangers of life, and extreme situations. Religious belief, or lack thereof, is a second theme Mr. Martel explores in Life of Pi. More important than both, however, is the uniquely human gift of storytelling. Stories – created, remembered, and passed on through time – differentiate us from animals because without stories and traditions to govern our decisions, we could only act instinctively. Pi practices three religions simultaneously because he cannot choose a favorite: he understands that they are all different versions of the same story of creation, sacrifice, morality, and salvation. Even atheists have faith – that there is no God – and therefore Pi feels kinship with them. It is the agnostics who do not believe in anything that Pi dismisses as having no imagination. Pi says to the author that “choosing to believe in nothing is like choosing immobility as a means of transportation”.

Pi’s story of survival begins when his family decides to close down their zoo and emigrate to Canada in order to escape Indira Gandhi’s heavy handed policies. Many of their animals must cross the ocean in order to reach their new homes and so the family sets up a temporary zoo in the hold of the cargo ship. One night, several days into the voyage, something goes wrong and Pi wakes up in time for the Chinese crew of the Tsimtsum to put an orange life vest on him and toss him into a lifeboat. As the ship sinks, he realizes he is not alone on the boat: there is a zebra with a broken leg and a snarling hyena. After the ship sinks, a tiger swims toward the lifeboat, climbs aboard, and hides under the boat’s canvas cover out of fear and seasickness. Soon an orangutan floating on a large bunch of bananas meets up with the lifeboat and the motley crew leave the detritus of the ship behind. Initially, the passengers on the lifeboat maintain a truce of sorts, but soon the hyena kills and eats the injured zebra. When his hunger returns, the hyena kills the orangutan. Meanwhile, Pi constructs a raft out of life preservers and exiles himself by means of a long rope to avoid being the hyena’s next meal. The tiger finally emerges from hiding and in a rage dispatches the hyena. Pi draws from his knowledge of zoology to establish a boundary enabling him and the tiger to share the forty foot boat. Pi maintains his status as zookeeper by catching fish and turtles for the tiger and in exchange the tiger doesn’t kill him.

The two strange bedfellows ride the Pacific Ocean currents and miraculously reach Mexico where the tiger escapes into the wilderness and a severely dehydrated and sunburned Pi is rescued by fishermen and taken to a hospital. When news of a Tsimtsum survivor reaches the ship’s Japanese owners, two representatives travel to Mexico to interview him. The Japanese listen politely to Pi’s story but question its veracity. Pi then tells them a different version of what happened. At the end, the reader, like the Japanese, can choose between the two stories. Pi recommends the better story.

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