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?