Life of Pi is one of those novels that is famous for being rejected (at least five times, apparently) before finally being published. It went on, of course, to win the Booker Prize. Contradictory though it may sound, neither fact is surprising. Life of Pi is a fairly extraordinary novel, extraordinary in both a good and a bad sense.
It is in three parts and these parts, although they are wildly different, are supposed to flow seamlessly, held together by the symbolism the author has created. This is a self-avowedly spiritual novel. “I have a story that will make you believe in God,” says a character, Mamaji, early in the novel. The novel as a whole isn’t so didactic – not quite – but it is certainly strongly suggesting to us that there is something unseen in the fabric of the universe. Barack Obama, for one, has fallen for it. The novel is, he told its author, “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling”. It’s certainly the latter, but it goes no distance towards proving the former. Obama does hit on something, though: this conflation of storytelling and spirituality is a significant element of the novel, as we shall see later.
Part one tells the life in India of young Piscine Molitor Patel, Pi for short, the son of a zoo keeper and a quester, in the manner of someone from a Hermann Hesse novel, after truth. He becomes a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu, all at once, much to the perplexity of his modern, atheist family and the range of gurus to whom he goes for spiritual succour. This is lightly and deftly told and, while the author clearly wants to plant some seeds in our minds, he nonetheless avoids didacticism, mainly because Pi himself is a pleasant, self-deprecating and hopelessly, unknowingly, naive narrator. Thus, although we know we’re being set up for an examination of spirituality we don’t, as we might in some of the less felicitous parts of Hesse’s oeuvre (the Elder Brother episode in The Glass Bead Game, for example), kick against it.
Pi goes on to study both zoology and theology, a pairing that might give coniption fits to some of the creationists out there but Martel slowly guides us towards the twin-track thematic impulses in the novel, nature and spirit, man and god, man and animal, life and transcendence, reason and belief.
Part one ends abruptly when the Patel family decide to emigrate to Canada. This proves a disastrous decision: their ship is shipwrecked and only Pi survives. Well, Pi, plus a giraffe with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450 pound Bengal tiger. All on the one lifeboat. Though not – nature being red in tooth and claw and, after a few days at sea, extremely hungry – for very long. The hyena quickly sees off the giraffe, then, with a little more difficulty, the orang-utan, before falling in the third round to the majestic tiger. Only beast and boy remain, adrift on the Pacific Ocean with no hope of rescue. What next?
What ensues is simply a masterclass in creative writing. Anyone serious about being a writer must read part two of Life of Pi. It is superb. In particular, study the way Martel manages the pace. The interludes become increasingly dramatic, but they are interspersed with moments of reflection and calm. Think about it. We have a story in which wild animals and a child are adrift on a boat. What happens is inevitable. The animals kill and eat each other. The boy will be next. And yet the reader is still enthralled. To be able to spin that storyline out over more than two hundred pages is masterful. What unfolds, of course, is wholly incredible, but such is Martel’s skill that we are totally drawn into his fantasy. "I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day," Pi tells us, neatly turning himself, like Joseph Knecht in The Glass Bead Game, into a mystic. We believe. We believe it when Pi slowly, very carefully, begins to tame the tiger, Richard Parker. We endure his endless searches for food from the ocean, share his revulsion at raw fish, and turtle blood, and the process of killing itself. We wince at his constipation. We exult in his trapping of precious rain. We feel the heat of the sun, the chafe of fabric on waterlogged skin. Always, we keep a wary eye on the menacing Richard Parker. We share Pi’s wonder at their continued co-existence. With him, we endure every one of the 227 days he is adrift in the Pacific. With him, we fall a little bit in love with Richard Parker.
The magic-realist fabulism of part two could not have worked without the earthy realism of part one. We can believe Pi’s understanding of the tiger’s nature, and his gradual battle for control over it, because in the first section we were treated to an expert analysis of animal and human natures, of battles for dominance, of the interrelationship between man and animal. We know that Pi, son of a zookeeper, would have sufficient knowledge to survive. It makes sense. What could be utterly unbelievable falls neatly within the compass of the fictive dream. It works.
It begins not to work when Pi and Richard Parker land on a mysterious island, peopled by tree-dwelling, continent-hopping meerkats, an island which exhibits an increasingly sinister mien. It is, we discover, not an island at all but a seething mass of carniverous algae. Hmm. The beautifully constructed fictional universe begins to unravel, and it is not immediately evident why Martel has done this. What is his purpose?
There is a strong metafictional element to Life of Pi, of course, and this is where Barack Obama’s analysis is spot on: because this novel is indeed in part about storytelling. It is about realism and magic-realism. James Woods sums it up neatly in his review:
Martel proves, by skilful example, that realism is narrative’s great master, that it schools even its own truants. He reminds us in fact that realism is already magical, an artifice-in-waiting.
Yes, indeed, I think that’s true, but where does the magic island come into it? All realism is blown away, the carefully constructed world is dismantled and replaced by something plastic and fantastically dull (in the literal sense of the phrase). To what end? We’ll come back to that question, but first we need to look a bit deeper at the philosophical basis of the novel.
Where the novel succeeds and fails is in the roles of the respective gurus who guide the questing Pi in his home in India. Here, Martel is treading on familiar territory. Think, for example of Joseph Knecht’s gurus in The Glass Bead Game, the wise and liberal, highly cultured man amongst men, Father Jacobus and the otherwordly mystic, the Elder Brother. Or, in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is torn between the enlightened liberal Settembrini and the proto-fascist Naphta. As with art and science, good and evil, (man and God), we are being told that these gurus represent the polars of the spirit. They offer different approaches to knowledge; they are opposites, but attached. Or, as we might say back home, they are two cheeks of the same arse. And this is true of the gurus in Life of Pi to such an extent that one dialectical pair of them even shares the name of Kumar: one an atheist teacher who shocks and confronts the pious Pi (no coincidence in the name and his nature, of course), and the other a devout Muslim baker whose humility and humanity greatly impress the boy.
The trouble, it seems to me, is that Pi is not sufficiently immersed in their teaching to take on their wisdom (or otherwise). Thus, when we get to the crux of the matter, the yearning which accompanies Pi’s isolation and his loneliness and his growing understanding of the regal animal with which he shares the boat, it does not feel fully realised. What happens instead, as James Woods points out, is that God gradually disappears from Pi’s thoughts in the progress of his passage at sea. Nonetheless, while I think Woods may be right to an extent, I think he may be missing the main point. 227 days adrift on the Pacific might indeed give one pause to ponder the nature of God and reality but, as Florence Stratton reminds us in her excellent review, Pi was also greatly exercised by trying not to be eaten by a hungry Bengal tiger. Brute reality must always intervene. This is the message of a Jacobus as opposed to an ascetic Elder Brother or, in Life of Pi, of the teacher Kumar as opposed to the baker Kumar. There is a place for God, and belief in God, but so too is there a place for action. Pi, for all his pious thoughts (and much to his horror if he were ever to realise it) is precisely an exemplar of the rational approach of Settembrini and teacher Kumar and Father Jacobus. Stratton’s conclusion is that Martel:
is not out to prove the existence of God, but rather to justify a belief in God’s existence. Martel’s position is a post-modernist one, from the perspective of which God’s existence has the same status in relation to truth and reality as Pi’s experience of shipwreck.
Life of Pi is organized around a philosophical debate about the modern world’s privileging of reason over imagination, science over religion, materialism over idealism, fact over fiction or story.
I think she may be right. But rather than seeing this as a positive, this is where I start to worry. This is where, from Rousseau onwards into the present day (McCarthy, for example) writers begin to create monsters out of human beings and ascribe to them the source of any number of malaises. For these people, the Enlightenment is the nadir, the moment when mankind lost its connection to mystery and faith and the holy spirit, and instead began to worship itself as its own, immanent god. In this way, humanity is set as a straw man against itself, with exaggerated claims for the malignancy of man or the efficacy of faith. Binary oppositions are created with which to “prove” that mankind has lost its way and is heading into a godless abyss.
Martel, to his credit, does not take us this far. His novel is much more buoyant than this, with a far greater sense of hope, and decency, and a feeling that man may not have travelled all the way into abjection, as our more eccentric philosophers and writers (Eric Voegelin, say) may attest. Nonetheless, he does join the brigade against reason. For all his rationality, Pi is allowed to say, unchallenged:
“Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater”
This is the sort of simplistic nonsense one is accustomed to hearing from televangelists and Hoover Shoats-like corner-street con-preachers. As a philosophical basis on which to hook a novel it is trite. Now perhaps, of course, it is said ironically, and the fact that Pi’s actions do not correspond to his thoughts would certainly bear that out.
But we return to the episode on the carnivorous island. What does it mean? I asked the question earlier, without answering. That is because, as Stratton points out, it cannot be answered except retrospectively, after the second telling of the story of his shipwreck by Pi to the two Japanese investigators which is the crucial element of part three of the novel. Indeed, it is a crucial element of the whole novel. This is where Martel tries to pack his greatest punch, his principal observation about the triumph of reason over faith.
This part, in which two Japanese loss adjustors come to interview the survivor Pi, when he finally reaches land in Mexico, in order to discover the fate of the ship which sank, has echoes of the ending of McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, or the heretic passage in his The Crossing. In each, we are given a metastory, a story behind the story, a radical retelling of what is going on in the main narrative. And, again, the purpose is metaphysical. Here is the mystery of man, McCarthy and Martel tell us, and here is the mystery of God. Each is the same and each is different. Each speaks of truth and each is false. Wonder, wonder about it all. Well, wonder indeed, but for me, I prefer Erik Satie’s rejoinder to “Wonder about yourself”.
The Japanese investigators simply do not believe Pi’s story – and who can blame them, of course, for it is truly unbelievable. But Pi then tells them another story, this time of a shipwreck without animals but with other human beings – Pi’s mother, an injured sailor and a French cook. This short passage quickly becomes horrific, a story of murder and cannibalism and the search for the meaning of evil. The story is, of course, the same as the story with animals – for the cook read the hyena, for Pi’s mother the orangutan, for the injured sailor the giraffe and so on. Which story do you prefer? Pi asks the two Japanese men. The story with animals, they conclude, and in so doing, in finally preferring what they had previously disbelieved, they find some sense of faith and spirit and adventure and free themselves, these rationalist men, from the curse of reason.
So back to the island. What is it? It is, of course, symbolic. In Stratton’s reading, which I find compelling, she suggests it is allegorically “taking direct aim at consumer capitalism as the most secular and materialist form of human existence.” There is no sense of the individual on the island, only a collective will to consume. The island is a spiritual vacuum, a nothingness, the blankness at the centre of our modernity. Stratton says:
The deconstructive project of Life of Pi is to replace the Enlightenment belief in the power of reason to liberate humanity with a belief in the transforming power of story.
But if this is so, Martel is establishing a false binary. This is the sort of connection made by people like Karen Armstrong, who correctly note the role of myth (which is, after all, the original storytelling) in the creation of religions and religious thought. So far so good, but next these critics try to suggest an opposition between this sense of storytelling and the power of reason. No such opposition exists. The world of reason can embrace, perfectly, the idea of storytelling. It can even accept it as a means of exploring rational ideas: what are fables and folk tales, if not rationalist examinations of the foibles of humanity? There is a place for storytelling and there is a place for reason, but they can also coexist perfectly harmoniously. Those who attempt to decry Enlightenment beliefs by asserting they must, somehow, imprison humanity in some reductive, emotionless shell, or carnivorous island, are ascribing to it something completely false and alien. And this, for me, is the problem with Martel’s island and, by extension, the message of his entire novel. To criticise reason for engendering a lack of belief, and to promote belief as an antidote to reason is simplistic. To blame the Enlightenment for the ills of the world is shallow. To shelter behind the power of storytelling is naive. Man is not, nor does he want to be, an immanent god, but he can still be a transformative power for good. I think Pi Patel believes this. I’m not entirely convinced that Yann Martel does.