red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

Life of Pi: A Novel

Yann Martel
New York: Harcourt, Inc. ©2001


From an early literary feast filled with Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh mysteries, Mary Stewart and Catherine Gaskin Euro-travel romance novels, and Edith Hamilton mythology, as well as assorted ancient and modern classical dishes of poetry and prose, my forays into fictional realms dropped dramatically by the time I finished college. The workaday world doesn't seem to allow time to dabble in literary fiction, although we might suggest that work is its own sort of collective dream — or nightmare. But after so many years spent deeply engrossed in nonfiction business books, trade journals, and Google searches, what an engaging experience, then, to come upon Life of Pi, Yann Martel's inventive novel.

In this book, as in life, the line between real and imaginary bobs and weaves, blurs and disappears, teases and haunts from the opening Author's Note. Martel's set-up to the story sounds as if it's a typical author's acknowledgement. But by the time we pass the thank-yous and slide into the narrative, we begin to wonder. Such is the quality and capacity of this great writer to create a believably unbelievable world from the opening lines.

Ostensibly the story of survival from a shipwreck, we are encouraged to find much more within. Martel would have us believe that he discovered the tale of Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel — and the life-changing encounter with Richard Parker — on a trip to India made after an earlier novel failed to hit the Big Time in his native Canada. As the author describes it, during conversation in a colorful aromatic coffee shop south of Madras on the Tamil Nadu coast, an elderly local makes the intriguing statement, "I have a story that will make you believe in God." Skeptical but interested, Martel questions the storyteller, who connects this town in southern India to Canada, where both the writer and the subject of the narrative now reside. Of course, Martel is hooked, ready to listen, and taking notes.

Martel draws us into the story of the Patels of Pondicherry, India, a family that owns the local zoo. When changes within India's political climate lead to his parents' decision to sell the zoo's animals and emigrate to Toronto, young Pi Patel is not excited to leave the home he loves. But as a boy of sixteen, he is not free to do anything except accompany his mother, father, and older brother — along with a few zoo animals that will be delivered to buyers in the U.S. and Canada — on the ship to their new northern homes.

While the first part of the trip is uneventful, not long out of Manila, at the start of its long Pacific crossing and after repairs to the ship's engines were to have been made, Pi is awakened by an explosion in the night. He gets above deck in time to see the stern sinking rapidly. Before he knows what's happened, the ship is gone and he finds himself in a lifeboat with a small menagerie, surrounded by flotsam and the vast Pacific Ocean.

For days that turn into months, Pi uses his knowledge of zookeeping, animal behavior, and communication to survive. And as the narrative unfolds, we are engrossed in the multi-layered exchanges taking place among the inhabitants in the lifeboat, and we begin to see connections between animal behavior and our own.

"I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion. Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are 'happy' because they are 'free.' These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind... (the life of a gnu or of an aardvark is rarely exalted).... They imagine this animal overseeing its offspring proudly and tenderly, the whole family watching the setting of the sun from the limbs of trees with sighs of pleasure. The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. Its 'happiness' is dashed. It yearns mightily for 'freedom' and does all it can to escape. Being denied its 'freedom' for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

"That is not the way it is.

"Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations...."

Not only does this passage provide some perspective, a tweak at our tendency to anthropomorphize the world around us, and a sense of our narrator's framework for what unfolds in the story, it could describe any modern office environment.

By the time the tale is finished, we are left to wonder how or if we would survive a shipwreck — and what we are doing in our lives to make the days more meaningful than mere survival. What would we do when facing the time-that-never-ends on a borderless ocean with only our wits and the provisions in a small lifeboat? And what we will make of our lives and our relationships once we recognize that we can (and probably will) do things both good and bad we never thought possible?

With its intriguing and incredible detail, excruciating you-are-there descriptions of day-to-day existence on a lifeboat in the ocean, and stories-within-a-story — as well as a kind of alternate ending, Life of Pi offers a multi-dimensional, multi-level opportunity for examining our selves, our relationships and interactions, and our dreams. Isn't that what we need to do every day, most especially, before the shipwreck hits? No doubt.

 

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