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Charlotte Innes | The Nation

Charlotte Innes

Author Bios

Charlotte Innes

Charlotte Innes, a writer in Los Angeles, reviews books for various
publications. She also recently won a first prize in the "Poetry in the Windows" contest in Los Angeles.

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As the bombs cease falling on Baghdad, and the world argues over an
American presence in Iraq, the publication of Diana Abu-Jaber's funny,
thoughtful second novel, Crescent, seems uncann

It's easy to find fault with Blue Shoe, Anne Lamott's sixth
novel.

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.