Life of Pi - Yann Martel
Life of Pi is one of those stories that strikes readers at multiple levels as they read, but like a fine wine, reveals its complexity in after-tastes of reflection. It is a story about survival at sea, though with a twist--the castaway, Pi, shares his lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger. Obviously, this adds layers to the adversity Pi must struggle against to survive and it is the dominant "taste" of the story. This core narrative is engaging and the author, Yann Martel, apparently did his research on ocean survival well because this aspect of his novel is very believable. He also seems to know a lot about animal, especially tiger, behavior from the standpoint of zookeepers, and was able to integrate that knowledge into an ocean castaway story. Quite a feat, and it worked.

But Life of Pi is not just an ocean survival story. It is a story about religion. It explores what religion is, what it means to people, and how it stands in relation to faith, hope, spiritual epiphany, and even fear. Pi's story is said to be (by another character) one that will make you believe in God. It might. It will certainly make you think about God, and examine your beliefs, or lack thereof, about Him/Her.

The Life of Pi is told in three parts within an encompassing frame. The frame tells the story of the author (a story character, but seems to be Mr. Martel playing himself) discovering Pi's story from an old man in India (who is a friend of Pi's family). The man directs the author to find Pi in Toronto and the author, intrigued by what the man has told him, finds Pi and interviews him. That interview process is told briefly in short, italicized chapters in the book's first part. These sections serve as a frame in more than just story construction. They also frame the story's themes: "most people miss the better sides of life," and, "the central core of all religions." Both are expressed early in a passage where the author speaks of his most recent interview session with Pi:

Our encounters always leave me weary of the glum contentment that characterizes my life...What of God's silence?...An intellect confounded yet a trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose.

As for Pi's story, it begins with him as a teenaged Indian boy in the small town of Pondicherry in India. His full name is Piscine Molitor Patel and he tells us that he was named after a famous swimming pool. He is given grief for his name in school (his first name is pronounced with a small 'i' sound in the first syllable). He resolves the problem with a typical ingenuity that serves him well later when he is lost at sea. He shortens his name to 'Pi' and makes the association of it to the math concept (3.14). This effectively dispels the negative association that was making him the butt of jokes.

Pi's father is a zookeeper and so Pi grows up with all kinds of wild animals within the zoo environment. Pi develops his own passion for animals and zookeeping and it leads him to make zoology one of a double major in college. The other major is religion, which he also developed a passion for in Pondicherry. Pi describes his encounters there with holy men of the Christian, Muslim, and Hindu faiths that lead him to embrace all three. Indeed, he practices all three unabashedly (but in secret from his parents).

Pi is able to express his faith and "trusting sense of presence and ultimate purpose" through these three major religions. To him, God is not limited to any one of them. This view is underscored by two beautiful images in the book's first part. The first is when the local leaders of the three religions meet Pi and his family while on a Sunday stroll. When they realize that Pi is a faithful follower of all three religions, they are astounded. They cannot accept that a person can be a Catholic, a Muslim, and a Hindu without contradiction and they argue violently about it.

The second image is when Pi is showing two wise men around his father's zoo. One man is an atheist and the other is a Muslim. With Pi, the realist, they view a Grant's zebra and all express their appreciation of the animal's beauty from their own perspective. They are together in their differences with no arguments at all.

With this foundation of thought about religion in the first part, Mr. Martel takes us into the second which is the story of Pi's ordeal as a castaway at sea. It would be easy to see the second part as an illustration of the first in the form of a detailed and intense parable, and that's just how I take it.

The setting for the second part is mostly the Pacific Ocean. Pi and his family, with their zoo, are relocating to Canada. The old cargo ship they are traveling on sinks, putting Pi into his lifeboat situation with the tiger. The tiger is named, "Richard Parker." The reason given for the unusual name is a believable little tidbit and it works to emphasize the tiger as more of a personal force in the story than if he had been named, "Twinkie" or some such.

Pi's journey across the Pacific with Richard Parker is an engrossing tale with powerful images to ponder. The sea, with all its majesty of sheer expanse, brimming with life, alternating between bounty and dearth in providing Pi with food, fierce storms, days of beauty and days of boredom, is surely an image of life. Pi travels it with the tiger that he must train if he is to make it to safety. But safety is elusive and false versions present themselves several times (including a carnivorous island; I'm still pondering that one).

Always, in his struggles, Pi reaches the point where he is just worn out and feeling hopeless and alone. It is at these points where he says he turns to God:

I grew weary of my situation, as pointless as the weather. But life would not leave me. The rest of this story is nothing but grief, ache and endurance...It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God...Solitude began. I turned to God. I survived.

At the times Pi says this about turning to God, he offers no further comment on the matter. He does not explain in what way he "turns to God." I think the examination of Pi's religious development in the first part answers that, or begins to. And I think at these times that Pi is rediscovering "God's silence" and perhaps the "still, small voice" that is the place where God is always found.

I won't give any spoilers as to Pi's "rescue" or of the action in the third part. Just let me say that it leaves no doubt that the story is indeed about religion. It underscores the role of "story" in our religious beliefs and the importance of the stories we embrace in getting us through this life.

I believe that with Life of Pi, Yann Martel has produced a classic work of literature for the twenty-first century. If there are any open-minded classrooms in the future, surely Mr. Martel's book will be required reading for them. It is a book that I highly recommend for the serious student of life. It will help mold your thinking about the story you prefer, and maybe help you find it, whether you are atheist, Catholic, Muslim, or Hindu.