Annotation by Lee Stoops
“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity – it’s envy.”
~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi (6)
Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is, as writing for life goes, brilliant. Early on, the story evokes a sense of wonder that encompasses all parts of life: physical, emotional, spiritual, rational, survival. Martel’s control of language is gripping both in its power and lyricism. At times, the story progresses in a fairy-tale manner of wonder, while at others it’s a philosophic and/or religious text, and still at others it’s a journal of tragedy and adventure. The story as a whole is an expressive, brutal, and tender account that inspires the imagination and answers unanswerable questions – all through the eyes of a teenage Indian boy adrift on a small lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with an adolescent Bengal tiger.
Within the first 10 pages, I knew I was in for a ride. The book’s first section, “Toronto and Pondicherry,” richly details the early life and development of the book’s main character and narrator, Piscine Patel. “Pi” is a self-inflicted nickname; a response to teasing and mispronunciation. Martel’s first person narrative of Pi is very smart, very direct, and often poetic. Pi is an emotionally evolved (“He had no idea how deeply those words wounded me. They were like nails being driven into my flesh” (7).), spiritually charged (“To me, religion is about our dignity, not our depravity” (71).), life-aware (“First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fit in the impression made by the first” (50).) young boy. He struggles with people, but understands humanity on the scale of animal survival and evolution. He comes to questions of wonder on his own, in response to his unique world view. “All things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive” (41).
Reading the story through my worldview lens, I found myself rapt, as a reader/writer/human, throughout each page. In one scene while growing up in India, Pi approaches his father and makes some religious requests. His father, a busy zoo-owner/keeper and loving but at times absent figure, argues and eventually presses Pi to talk to Mother. The following is the end of their dialogue:
““But Piscene!” she said… “Father and I find your religious zeal a bit of a mystery.”
“It is a Mystery.”
“Hmmm. I don’t’ mean it that way. Listen, my darling, if you’re going to be religious, you must be either a Hindu, a Christian or a Muslim. You heard what they said on the esplanade.”
“I don’t see why I can’t be all three. Mamaji has two passports. He’s Indian and French. Why can’t I be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim?”
“That’s different. France and India are nations on earth.”
She thought for a second. “One. That’s the point. One nation, one passport.”
“One nation in the sky?”
“Yes. Or none. There’s that option too, you know. These are terribly old-fashioned things you’ve taken to.”
“If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?”
A cloud of uncertainty came over her face” (73-74).
This exchange is indicative of Martel’s character/topic control. He uses both dialog and inner monolog to offer the reader arguments and answers. In terms of writing, it’s powerful because it’s borderline rhetoric. Something written that can at once entertain, enlighten and raise questions (or, even answer them) is something I want to be able to do with my writing. There’s more here than just the story: there’s life.
His family, because of politics and for other reasons, is forced to consider a major life change and relocation/emigration. The sell what animals they can, lose the lease on the zoo, and pack everything (lives and what animals are left) onto a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada. It sinks (it’s never really clear how/why, but that doesn’t matter) and Pi is left alone on a small life boat with a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and an adolescent Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Of course, by the end of the first week, Pi and the tiger are the only two alive. This is where the fiction really kicks in and the story, while it crawled beautifully along in section one, starts to walk and then run. Everything Pi knows is challenged. And, fortified. Living in the head of someone living on a raft with a tiger for seven months for 189 pages that feel like a single page is remarkable story-telling. Martel’s gift throughout “The Pacific Ocean” part of the book exists within a perfectly balanced mix of humor, sorrow, adventure, wonder, invention, and contemplation. “And so, in a moment of insanity brought on by hunger – because I was more set on eating than I was on staying alive – without any means of defense, naked in every sense of the term, I looked Richard Parker dead in the eyes. Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind” (222). It’s no wonder to me that this story commanded the coveted Man Booker Prize.
Martel’s story as a writer is wrought with short-comings, floundering, and attention lost. His success came from perseverance through what most would label failure. Part of what makes this story so powerful is that it comes from the imagination of someone that really believes in the power of fiction to grow and change lives. A hopeless optimistic telling the story of a hopeless optimistic – as a reader I was inspired, but as a writer I am affirmed. The story wins in the end: not because it actually wins, but because it’s told as truth. Beautiful.