Life of Pi
π = 3.14159265
Consisting of a young boy, a lifeboat, a tiger and a vast blue ocean, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi delivers a fantastical tale of survival amongst profound storytelling, all while answering to the call of modern literature. With modern literature consisting of various style elements and aspects, Martel delivers a new form of fiction that fuses fantasy and actuality into his own masterpiece, described by the New Jersey Star-Ledger as “more than a hint of magical realism, and a wallop of sheer storytelling genius”. Yann Martel presents Life of Pi in such a manner which directly appeals to the characteristics of modern literature in a form that stylistically emphasizes his story-telling and blurs the lines of fantasy and non-fiction.
Specifically evident within the “author’s note” preface of the novel, the audiences’ ability to filter the factual and imaginative information may prove to be a difficult feat especially without the proper knowledge that Martel acquired in the writing of his novel. Presenting it in a matter of a ‘story within a story’ Yann Martel intertwines his actual journey through India, including his arrival to Matheran, the hill station closest to Bombay and the Pondicherry gardens, with the fictional occurrence of meeting a man in a coffee shop and the setting of a zoo within those gardens. As the novel continues, fictionally Martel is lead to Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel who tells his adventure and allows Martel to retell it; resulting in an additional story within a story complex. In supporting his fictional detail, Martel adds at the end of his author note:
It seemed natural that Mr. Patel’s story should be told mostly in the first person- in his voice and through his eyes. But any inaccuracies or mistakes are mine” (Martel XI)
Therefore adding to the audience’s persuasion of the existence of Pi Patel and the events which follow as being true; fully exhibiting an aspect of modern literature as “the way the story is told [becoming] as important as the story itself”.
The birth of such a novel occurred while “[He] was hungry” (Martel VII) and in dire need of a new muse and source of inspiration, as his previous work had perished. Martel openly addressed a premise he had long been exposed to and then had long forgotten. Ten years prior to the Life of Pi, Yann Martel came across a review regarding a novel which had been disregarded as simply forgettable; however the basis of the novel struck a chord within him. As Martel states in his original essay How I wrote Life of Pi
…the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther…I marveled. What perfect unity of time, action and place. What stark, rich simplicity.
It was later, during his second tour of India and at a low point in his career that Martel found himself at a hill station close to Bombay which was peaceful and blessed with being “un-indian”. At that moment he recalled the lost premise:
Suddenly, my mind was exploding with idea. I could hardly keep up with them. In jubilant minutes whole portions of the novel emerged full formed: the lifeboat, the animals, the intermingling of the religions and the zoological, the parallel stories.
Where did that moment of inspiration come from? Why did I think that religion and zoology would make a good mix? How did I think up the theme that reality is a story and we can choose our story and so why not pick “the better story”?
…in truth, I don’t know. It just happened. Some synapses in my brain started firing off and I came up with ideas that were not there a moment before.
After years of research, interviews and complete immersion in the “Indianness” of his character, Martel’s end result was considered to be phenomenal; claiming to make one believe in God. However, having established the novel on such a dangerously high level of expectation, Life of Pi failed to meet that specific expectation. Instead, it accomplished a more subtly stunning feat of making the reader feel a need to believe in God. This was done so with centering the premise of the novel on belief and faith. As religion is a debatable subject and many feel inclined to question such a system, Martel leveled his purpose with the intention of not focusing on the system of religion but instead the instillation of faith (much like he focused on the storytelling than the level of actuality to which the novel was written). Hence the reason the protagonist, Pi Patel, is characterized as a multi-faith individual, equally practicing Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. With each religion being very different in its own distinctive ways and ultimately consisting of a small rivalry, Martel is able to harness the meaning and purpose of religion to reflect a generalized unity and belief system known as faith. Regardless of which ideology an individual chooses to follow their remains a common connection within humanity, displaying yet another aspect of modern literature in addressing connections between people. As Martel himself describes in an interview, he “[Chose] three religions because [he] wanted to discuss faith, not organized religion, so [he] wanted to relativize organized religion by having Pi practice three”.
In a similar light, Yann Martel draws a parallel with his main character and theme of religion and faith. The symbol Pi, being an irrational number with no discernable pattern, is used to come to terms with finding a ‘rational’ understanding of our universe; much like finding order out of chaos. However, the novel also presents a similar religious ideology in the fact that religion is specifically composed of irrational, unexplainable material, yet humanity is able to come together and find order and reason from such a system, resulting in what we regard as faith.
Yann Martel delivers through his pages the evidence of “desperate times call for desperate measures” as when Pi is faced with desperation, he loses all sense of propriety. As stated within the novel “it is simple and brutal: a person can get used to anything, even killing”. In such a dire situation, Pi’s true faith is tested at a point where uncompromising faith is needed most. The vegetarian Pi Patel disregards his morale and taste flesh in order to survive. Martel address the timeless theme that man will undoubtable abandon any stict morale and commit to what would otherwise be sin, yet at the same time they feel their strongest connection to god, begging for His help and for Him to be their savior.
Numerous reviews have cited Life of Pi as being comparable to The Old Man and the Sea, a short novel written by Ernest Hemingway. This simple, reserved classic can be read as merely another adventure story, but for many readers similarities are drawn between the epic struggle of man and beast and their fight for supremacy. The Old Man and Pi learn they must respect their opponent because each is connected to them through a mutual suffering and source of strength, with the animals being their true counter-part as they reflected human behavior.