Tigers and tall tales: questions of literary faith in this year's Man Booker winner
Yann Martel. Life of Pi. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002. 319 pages.
How much can you believe—that a sixteen-year-old boy spends 227 days adrift in the Pacific? What if he’s with a 450-pound tiger? Strained credulity is the order of the day in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and deliberately so: the question of belief is central to Life of Pi, the Canadian author’s third book and this year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize.
The main story of Life of Pi is framed by Martel’s own preface, which describes the winding path that led him to write the book. Martel thanks our protagonist, ‘Mr. Patel’, for sharing his story through interviews. Martel, it seems, wants us to believe that the story we are about to read is true, even though we know that Life of Pi is a novel. When Pi himself takes over the narrative in the first chapter, he captivates us with a very different, instantly appealing voice. The novel continues to oscillate back and forth between Pi’s narration of his long-ago survival at sea and Martel’s italicised interjections. Because Pi’s perceptive, reverent, and practical view of the world draws us in, though, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief of this elaborate framing device and immerse ourselves in the story.
Pi Patel grows up, we are told in the first third of the novel, on his family’s zoo in India. The Patels then decide to sell their animals to American buyers and settle in Canada. But in the middle of their journey across the Pacific, their hopes meet with an abrupt end. As Pi tells us, with characteristic candor:
The ship sank. It made a sound like a giant metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. Everything was screaming: the sea, the wind, my heart.
The ship sinks suddenly and for no known reason. Pi finds himself thrown aboard a lifeboat by the ship’s crew (who vanish into the sea), accompanied by animals (who have been inexplicably liberated from their cages). His family is gone. He is left in a well-stocked lifeboat with a hyena, an injured zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
If the events narrated are, in principle, possible, they become increasingly improbable. This is magical realism in the original sense of the phrase: there is no actual magic, but events and images are juxtaposed so as to create a sense of the magical. Pi’s fascination with the details of life imbues everything he explores with simplicity and subtle beauty. Pi’s wonder and descriptive talents lend the story a fantastical aura:
If you took the city of Tokyo and turned it upside down and shook it, you would be amazed at the animals that would fall out. It would pour more than cats and dogs, I tell you. Boa constrictors, Komodo dragons, crocodiles, piranhas, ostriches, wolves, lynx, wallabies, manatees, porcupines, orangutans, wild boar—that’s the sort of rainfall you could expect on your umbrella.
A constant stream of strange imagery prepares us for what happens after the ship sinks: we are so spellbound by the perceptive enchantment of Pi’s world that we are eager to believe anything he tells us. So when he finds himself on the animal-loaded lifeboat, we believe it and keep reading. It is no surprise that the hyena attacks and eats the zebra and orangutan: Pi has explained the rules of animal hunger in detail.
And when Richard Parker emerges from his hiding place on the boat and kills the hyena, this, too, makes sense. It is the tiger’s failure to turn on Pi that defies all expectation. Even Pi is surprised, as, shaken with fear, he assesses the food supply and builds a small raft of lifejackets and paddles just in case.
The situation’s implausibility pleases rather than frustrates, and, anyway, we want to know how the situation will turn out, so on we go. With one exception, the narrative of those 227 days at sea flows smoothly as an account of a day-to-day existence where wonder is joined with acceptance and belief:
With just one glance I discovered that the sea is a city. Just below me, all around, unsuspected by me, were highways, boulevards, streets and roundabouts bustling with submarine traffic. In water that was dense, glassy and flecked by millions of lit-up specks of plankton, fish like trucks and buses and cars and bicycles and pedestrians were madly racing about… I gazed upon this urban hurly-burly like someone observing a city from a hot-air balloon. It was a spectacle wondrous and awe-inspiring. This is surely what Tokyo must look like at rush hour.
The only time the narrative overstretches itself is when Pi encounters an island made of algae, inhabited solely by meerkats. Pi begins the tale with a warning: ‘there will be many who disbelieve the following episode. Still, I give it to you now because it’s part of the story and it happened to me’.
The event presages Pi’s landfall on the Mexican shore. There, we are again forced into disbelief, this time by two events that are entirely plausible, even predictable.
First, Richard Parker abandons Pi. Considering all we’ve been told about animals and their desire for comfort, it only makes sense that a tiger would quickly abandon seasickness and scarcity of food for the nearby jungle. But after 227 days of relationship building, we hope for a different, miraculous outcome (perhaps Pi will keep the tiger, or they will remain lifelong friends?). The second event is more jarring: the authorities refuse to believe Pi’s story. Their skepticism prompts Pi to retort:
If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?… Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer.
To prove his point, Pi offers a different, more ‘believable’ account, substituting the animals on the lifeboat for people from the ship. The authorities have trouble accepting this story as well—and the reader’s faith in Pi, so long maintained, is also in danger. Is he mad? Is Richard Parker a hallucination? Will our author return once more and explain? And what did happen to the ship, that accident that started all of this in motion? To the end, Pi insists on his original version, but the reader’s faith in narratives, and in this narrative in particular, has been shaken.
It is this direct relationship between storytelling and belief that makes Life of Pi more than just a well-told magical realist fable. In its questioning of other kinds of faith—faith in God, faith in nature’s complexities, faith in the will to live when faced with enormous loss—the book addresses the sort of philosophical themes often used to separate ‘literary’ from ‘popular’ fiction. Further, the novel frames its questions with an aching sincerity and eloquence that distinguish it as the sort of touching and accomplished ‘literary’ work Booker Prize judges historically privilege. It also boasts strong characterization and an original, compelling plot. In retrospect, it has obvious Booker potential (although no less than five publishers, including Penguin and Chatto & Windus, turned down the manuscript before Canongate picked it up). In addition to its highbrow ‘literariness,’ however, as one of the judges noted, Life of Pi ‘is a book with enormous and wide appeal,’ fitting nicely with the ‘new’ Booker Prize’s agenda to include more popular books. Perhaps the novel’s double appeal is best understood through another judge’s comments:
Unlike popular or genre novels, literary novels cannot be prescribed by publishers… They create their own enclosed world, are inventive in terms of narrative and character, and have an inimitable voice, the personal signature of the author.
Part spiritual fable, part metafictional reflection, and part adventure story, Life of Pi transcends the boundaries of stuffy literary intellectualism and becomes a uniquely enjoyable story in both content and structure. A smart choice for a Booker committee seeking to redefine itself, and just recognition for an author who has come into his own.