If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he’d be charismatic, funny and convert all the nonbelievers. He baits his readers with serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion, but he makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled, that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can’t help but be captured by his prose.

That’s largely why I took such pleasure in Life of Pi, Martel’s wonderful second novel, which playfully reworks the ancient sea voyage, castaway themes of classics like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Melville’s Moby-Dick and (in some of its more fantastical aspects) Homer’s The Odyssey, to explore the role of religion in a highly physical world. What’s more, it’s a religious book that makes sense to a nonreligious person. Although its themes are serious and there are moments of awful graphic violence and bleak despair, it is above all a book about life’s absurdities that makes one laugh out loud on almost every page, with its quirky juxtapositions, comparisons, metaphors, Borgesian puzzles, postmodern games and a sense of fun that reflects the hero’s sensual enjoyment of the world. Although Martel pays tribute to the past by using the typical castaway format (episodic narrative, focus on details of survival, moments of shocking violence and reflections on God and nature), his voice, and the fact that his work is more fantastic, more scientifically sound and funnier than that of his predecessors, infuses the genre with brilliant new life. If this century produces a classic work of survival literature, Martel’s novel is surely a contender.

Life of Pi is the unlikely story of a 16-year-old Indian boy, Pi Patel, adrift in a boat with a hungry tiger after the ship carrying his zookeeper father, mother, brother and many animals sinks in the middle of their journey from India to Canada. (It’s the mid-1970s and Pi’s father decides to emigrate after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi starts jailing her enemies and suspending civil liberties.) Pi is at once a Hindu, Christian and Muslim (echoes of the pacific Mahatma Gandhi here) who believes that all religions are about “love.” But having grown up among animals, he’s also practical and grounded. Early in the book, his three religious teachers meet, and Pi gets his “introduction to interfaith dialogue,” a big argument that ends only when he is asked for his opinion. He quotes Gandhi, “All religions are true,” adding, “I just want to love God,” which floors them all. Then he goes out with his parents for ice cream. Most of the rest of the book is a challenge to Pi’s simple faith, as this sweet yet unsentimental hero experiences a situation where, it would seem, survival is everything. Aside from the detailed descriptions of hands-on survival techniques that almost rival Ishmael’s whaling lore in Moby-Dick, the book poses the questions: Can faith survive in the face of doubt and suffering? Can the love of God and one’s fellows remain pure in an angry, violent world?

Despair sets in from the beginning. Not only does Pi lose his parents, but he is facing life on the ocean wave with a tiger (named Richard Parker), a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena. Pi watches them kill each other, with Richard Parker finishing off the hyena. The boat is littered with animal carcasses. As the days go by, Pi, a vegetarian, learns how to kill with his bare hands, batter turtles to death and eat uncooked flesh. He weeps. He is “dumb with pain and horror.” But he survives, marking his territory with his urine, as animals do, to keep Richard Parker at bay, feeding him and finally teaching the tiger (by using a whistle) that he, Pi, is master here.

It’s true that his three faiths recede to a whisper on the boat. He confesses that it is Richard Parker, and the practical matter of avoiding being eaten by him, that gives him “purpose,” even “peace” and perhaps “wholeness,” and thus keeps him alive. “If he died, I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger…. He pushed me to go on living.” Pi keeps up with his religious rituals, but he finds his faith wavering. In one funny scene, he yells out his beliefs to make them more real. “I would touch the turban I had made with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, ‘THIS IS GOD’S HAT!'” Then he points at Richard Parker and says, “THIS IS GOD’S CAT!” The boat is “GOD’S ARK!” The sea, “GOD’S WIDE ACRES!” The sky, “GOD’S EAR!” But, he says, “God’s hat was always unravelling,” and “God’s ear didn’t seem to be listening.”

You might say he’s trying to persuade himself. But it’s clear that he continues to appreciate the beauty of the sea and sky, and the sparse life around him, in which, as a Hindu, he sees his connection to God. There are wonderful poetic descriptions of the fish around the boat as a little city, of Richard Parker’s beauty and of a dorado fish that, as it dies, begins to “flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death.” Even when his journey is “nothing but grief, ache and endurance,” it is “natural,” he says, that he “should turn to God.”

But religion is only one element of the book’s exploration of faith. Martel is also interested in the faith of his readers. He wants them to believe his story. He has his narrator pose a larger, Keatsian “beauty is truth” argument against the glorification of reason, “that fool’s gold for the bright.” It’s as if he were suggesting that storytelling is a kind of religious experience because it helps us understand the world in a more profound way than a just-the-facts approach (or by implication, dogma, fundamentalism and literalism). Two passages that some reviewers have picked out as the least convincing (for their lack of literal accuracy!), I find illustrate Martel’s attempt to show the power of storytelling at its best. Fantastic, yes, but utterly convincing. The first is Pi’s encounter with a blind, cannibalistic Frenchman whom Pi runs into at the exact moment he too has gone blind for lack of nourishment. Their obsessive conversation about food is one of the funniest and most farcical moments in the book. The second is Pi’s sojourn on a flesh-eating island, which is one of the most chilling symbolic illustrations of evil I have read. (If the pious Swiss Family Robinson finds utopia, the religious Pi finds dystopia!)

Good postmodernist that he is, Martel wants to use the very telling of the tale–multiple narrators, a playful fairytale quality (“once upon a time” and “happy ending” are mentioned in passing), realistically presented events that may be hallucinations or simply made up–to push at the limits of what’s believable, yet still convince the reader of his literary, not literal, veracity. He wants to prove that it’s possible to remain curious about and connected to the world, yet to accept that there are always going to be aspects of life (and literature) that remain mysterious.

Pi’s doubts about his faith are mirrored by the seeds of doubt Martel sows in the mind of the reader throughout the narrative. Every moment of certainty is undercut by the potential for disbelief, and that’s when Martel seems to ask: Am I convincing you now? He sifts the story through various narrators, beginning with an author-narrator that at first one thinks is Martel himself but is only Martel-like, introducing the story as if it were true. Martel has said in interviews that some of this information is factually accurate. Like his narrator, he was trying to write a novel about Portugal that wouldn’t come alive when he got the idea for Life of Pi on a trip to India. Martel also briefly acknowledges his special debt to Brazilian Jewish writer Moacyr Scliar, whose novella Max and the Cats also has a hero who survives the sinking of a ship filled with zoo animals and spends days at sea in a boat with a large cat, in this case a jaguar. Scliar’s is the mini-version that Martel fleshes out with more lyrical language and the fruits of zoological research.

But there reality stops. There’s the whiff of an old-fashioned quest or allegorical tale in the introduction, for the Martel-like narrator first learns the story from Francis Adirubasamy, a family friend of Pi’s, who tells him that Pi’s story will make him “believe in God.” And he plays with the reader’s sense of reality when he has Adirubasamy talk about Pi as “the main character” whom the narrator proceeds to track down in Canada. And just how believable is Pi? Now in his 40s, Pi apologizes for his memory and tells the story as a series of out-of-sequence events–jumping back and forth between his early childhood, his teenage years and his time at sea. He can barely remember what his mother looks like, but he appears able to recall whole conversations from his childhood. He even asks the narrator to “tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less.” (He does.) One begins to wonder if Pi made up Richard Parker. Despite his knowledge that people anthropomorphize animals because of their “obsession” with putting themselves “at the centre of everything,” Pi seems disproportionately haunted by the fact that when the boat hits Mexico, Richard Parker takes off without a backward glance. Perhaps the loss of the tiger symbolizes the greater loss of his family, or of his own innocence. Perhaps Pi invented the tiger to keep himself sane. The reader is left to decide.

In a final test of the reader’s faith in the narrative, Martel has Pi tell an alternate, allegedly more believable version of the story at the end–lacking not only Richard Parker but also the humor, poetry and detail of the tiger story–to please a couple of doubting Japanese shipping officials. He asks them which they think is the “better” story. Of course, the tiger story is the finer, more thoughtful literary creation and therefore (Martel suggests) has a truth more lasting than the second, more journalistic version, with its “dry, yeastless factuality.”

Even if one accepts the twists and turns of the narrative, one faces the further challenge of tracking down clues hidden in a warren of allusions for more definitive answers to questions about Pi’s religious faith, and whether the narrator (and the reader) will be persuaded of the story’s original premise that it will make one believe in God. That symbolism is important in this book is made clear at first by the most obvious symbol of Pi’s name, self-chosen because it’s the short version of his real name Piscine (after a family friend’s favorite Parisian swimming pool), and he is inevitably called “Pissing” by classmates. Nothing could be grittier. In contrast, Pi is like ¼, what mathematicians call an “irrational number,” that is, 3.14 if rounded off, but with endlessly unfolding decimal places if carried out. Martel couples this mysterious abstraction with a concrete image–“And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge”–to show that, as a boy, Pi is in harmony with things as they are as well as with his sense of the unknowable.

That Pi’s attitude to religion may have changed after his ordeal is buried in the hidden symbolism hinted at by Pi’s college studies in religion and zoology, described on the opening page as if to emphasize their importance as a key to the story. (This is after the lifeboat comes to shore in Mexico, and Pi goes to Canada to start a new life.) His specialties are the sixteenth-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria and the sluggish three-toed sloth (symbol of the Trinity?) whose miraculous capacity to stay alive, he says, “reminded me of God.” (An echo of his own survival, perhaps? A hint that God seems more elusive these days?) More important, Luria’s cabalistic ideas may hold the key to Pi’s experience at sea. His philosophy (Luria thought the secrets of the universe lay in numbers) echoes the symbolism of ¼, and the formula for figuring out the dimension of a circle and its radius (connecting perimeter and center). Luria believed that God’s light contracted from the center of the universe, purging itself of evil elements, leaving an empty space (a circle) in which human life developed. But God also sent down a ray of light (like a radius) so that the few remaining divine sparks could reconnect with Him. To achieve this fusion with God, and by implication eliminate evil from the world, Luria believed, people must live an ethical life. The original divine contraction is called variously tzimtzum, zimzum or simsum. It’s no coincidence that Martel called the sinking ship Tsimtsum. Thus Pi at sea was experiencing his own void (or withdrawal of God), in which elements of evil fight with the instinct to do good. Richard Parker saved his sanity, and Pi’s goodness kept Richard Parker (and perhaps his own faith) alive. By introducing this strain of mystical Jewish thought, Martel not only further illustrates Pi’s contention that all religions are essentially the same in that they stem from love but he also uses mysticism to underscore the profound ways in which literature can present life’s truths. Skeptics, however, might see Pi’s study of Luria as a move away from his earlier, purer faith toward a more structured mysticism. That would explain his comment at the end of the book, when he confesses his need for “the harmony of order.”

Though one can read Life of Pi just for fun, trying to figure out Pi’s relationship to God makes one feel a bit like the castaway hero wrestling slippery fish into his lifeboat for dinner. An idea twists and turns, glittering and gleaming, slaps you in the face with its tail and slips away. Did the story really happen? Does it make one believe in God? What kind of God? Early on the narrator says, “This story has a happy ending.” But Pi also tells his interviewer, “I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he’s not careful,” which suggests a man with at least some conflict on his mind. On the other hand, Martel may also be suggesting that work is less important to Pi than God and family–the narrator gives us glimpses of Pi’s shrine-filled house and his loving relationship with his wife, son and daughter. However, when Pi is showing him family pictures, the narrator notes, “A smile every time, but his eyes tell another story.” I believe Martel’s point is that doubt inevitably accompanies faith. But the opposite explanation, that after Pi’s life-threatening experiences his faith is a mere prop for his anxiety, might work just as well.

Does it matter that the answer to all questions in this novel is both yes and no? One answer comes in the form of Pi’s question moments after the ship has sunk and he’s sitting in the lifeboat, bewailing the loss of his family and God’s silence on the topic: “Why can’t reason give greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in an answer? Why such a vast net if there’s so little fish to catch?” And that, of course, is the nature of faith. One can’t argue it through, one just believes. Faith in God (as the younger Pi sees it) “is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love.” It’s also “hard to love,” Pi adds, when faced with adversity. The same might be true of a good novel, as readers are taken to the edge of their understanding by something new. If the reader lets go of preconceptions, the experience can be liberating and exciting. Martel may be sowing seeds of uncertainty about God, but there’s no doubt that he restores one’s faith in literature.