Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
A sportswriter I admire mentioned on his radio program that he loves Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. This writer, a self-proclaimed “gas bag” and “clown,” is among my favorite pundits because he approaches sports as a lens through which one may examine the human condition at its best and worst. Race, temptation, redemption, class, economics, politics, failure, ambition, art, and beauty are the real topics of conversation on his program, and I believe that if his interests were in some other realm of pop culture, his approach would be the same: he’d laugh hysterically at the surface-level stuff while asking his audience to peer closely at the real-life stuff that bubbles beneath the surface. There is an endearing, secular spirituality that permeates his on-air persona even during radio segments about “athletes whose last names make you think of seafood.”
I can see why a publicly nonreligious person with spiritual tendencies would respond to a novel like this. Lacking a conviction about any one religious tenet, a well-told story that touches on a spiritual uncertainty while saying “I know this much is true” can really hit home for those longing to gain some kind of understanding about something ethereal. On this level, Life of Pi is successful. In casually lyrical prose, Martel’s protagonist, a teenaged boy named Pi, tells us a story that seems to say, “I don’t know how I got through it, but I had some help from something or someone.”
Where the novel comes up short is in its ability to deliver what it promises, which is “a story to make you believe in God,” and while that is a lofty ambition for any work of art, the shortcoming is not the result of aiming too high, but of the author’s not assembling the pieces as thoughtfully as he might.
By now, you probably know the plot. Pi is the son of a zookeeper in India. A follower of three faiths at once (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam), Pi finds something convicting and inspirational in all three practices, much to the bafflement of his educated, progressive, nonreligious parents. When his family sells the zoo and moves to Canada, the cargo ship on which they ride sinks, and the young man finds himself the sole human survivor on a lifeboat. The boat’s other survivor is a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The heart of the plot is a survival-at-sea tale to rival the best of that genre. Putting to use what he’s learned of animals and their territories, Pi spends weeks establishing the relationship between tiger and boy, understanding at one point that he is as dependent on the tiger as the tiger is on him.
There is an intentional narrator-reliability issue about which I will be vague for fear of spoiling the novel. This issue is presented as an interesting construction in the plot; how it is received by the reader is a determining factor in whether or not Life of Pi moves beyond survival tale into something deeper, and here is where it fails. At first I thought my disappointment was tied to my religious beliefs. I thought the novel made claim to a profundity it never achieved, and I wanted it to say something more specific than what it eventually says.
However, there is more to it than that. The plot construction doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and when Pi delivers what I think is the thesis of the tale, the faulty plot exposes itself. What the story-teller subjects us to doesn’t make sense; the dots simply don’t connect, and the resulting picture looks okay except in that one corner where it fails to bring the entire image together.
One can still accept the novel and its lessons the way one might any survival tale, but to do so ignores its attempt to say the one specific thing it attempts to say. This could have been a story to make one believe in God, in whatever way it wanted to define that term. A few more paragraphs in critical moments, tying the story-teller to his story, or even the narrator to his story-teller, might have helped it succeed. As it is, it is merely an engaging, well-told tale of a boy, his tiger, and a lifeboat.