The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A boy, a tiger and no questions asked

Life of Pi By Yann Martel, Penguin, Rs 295

After Life of Pi won the Booker prize in 2002, Yann Martel told journalists that he likes “simplicity”: “I write simple books and I view my readers as my equals.” He then went on to mention, as further proof of wholesomeness, that he cannot read Günter Grass (“too complicated and dense”) and has never been able to finish Midnight’s Children. There is nothing inherently disgraceful about either of these failings. But when publicly made as evidence of simplicity, such confessions begin to sound both righteous and disingenuous. Simplicity, when not the last resort of the complex, could be a dubious quality for a writer. It becomes an insufferable one when the simple writer chooses to write about faith — that too, about religious faith — as Martel does in Life of Pi. (It does not help to learn from the Booker website that Martel divides his time between writing, yoga and volunteer work, once a week, in a palliative care unit.)

Life of Pi has what Keats called, with distaste, a “palpable design”. It tells “a story that will make you believe in God”. In the current market, this upfront godliness could be sold as audacious in a retrograde sort of way, and Martel’s publicity-machine does not miss the chance. Pi attempts to combine the primal simplicities of faith and storytelling with the challenge of an outrageous scenario that would enable the writer to perform virtuosic feats of writing — a 16-year-old boy called Pi and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger called Richard Parker in a lifeboat on the Pacific, for precisely 277 days, after a mysterious shipwreck. This is, of course, an old story of trial and survival, extremity and endurance, of a journey at once fabulous, spiritual, psychological, creaturely and marine.

It is Martel’s particular, and ironic, misfortune that his novel continually recalls such things as Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea and, most of all, Coleridge’s great poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Again to Martel’s immense disadvantage, Pi made me go back to A Fringe of Leaves — Patrick White’s beautiful and deeply shocking novel about the wreck of the Bristol Maid, bound for England from Australia in 1836. Martel would probably find these works too complicated and dense, inimical to simplicity, and therefore dispensable. But it is impossible not to wonder why it feels so patently absurd to compare the current winner of Britain’s most esteemed literary prize with Hemingway or White, even if one agrees to leave Coleridge out of it altogether.

The “Author’s Note” to the novel presents, with Borgesian self-reflexiveness, a failed Canadian novelist who ends up in a café in Pondicherry in the mid-Nineties. There he meets a man who directs him back to Toronto in search of the eponymous Pi, who is now a grown man, but whose boyhood could provide the writer with a terrific yarn. The writer looks up Pi, who entrusts him with his story, together with his diary, newspaper clippings and other documents. Martel’s book is the writer’s account of Pi’s story, “told mostly in the first person — in his voice and through his eyes”.

Pi, or Piscine Molitor Patel (named after a Parisian swimming pool), spent his boyhood in close proximity to the birds and beasts of Pondicherry Zoo of which his father was the keeper. If zoology is his destiny, then religion is his passion. Pi has visions of the Virgin Mary, composes paeans to Islamic prayer-mats, and compresses Hinduism into a “holy nutshell”. When asked to choose his faith, he simply replies, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” Pi’s parents are however unable to bear the atrocities of the Emergency, and in 1977, they put themselves and some of their animals into the Tsimtsum and set sail for Canada. The ship sinks, and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat on the Pacific, initially with a gruesome hyena, a broken-legged zebra, a dribbling orang-utan (called Orange Juice) and a magnificent tiger. His family seem to be missing.

Pi then watches how the zebra is “eaten alive from the inside” by the hyena, which goes on to attack Orange Juice, spreads her out and eats up her head (“She looked like a simian Christ on the Cross.”) A few days pass, and Richard Parker the tiger is now hungry. But a battle of wills and gazes has already begun between Pi and Parker, and both realize that things could build up to a symbiotic relationship. So Pi is spared and the hyena is devoured, which leaves boy and tiger on board. The bulk of the novel is about this relationship, played out physically, psychologically and territorially over a period of more than seven months. This is interlaced with the story of Pi’s survival and the awakening of his faith. The most profound spiritual and physical anguish is caused by his being forced out of vegetarianism into killing sea-creatures — but the choice is between tiger-turd and sea-turtle. Pi’s survival is all about ruthlessness and adaptation, although both coexist with prayer (five times a day) and the appreciation of the changing sublimities of the ocean. But there is also the story of fear, loss and despair and delusion — many dark nights of the body and soul.

After floating about for seven months, Pi and Parker hit land, which turns out to be Mexico. Parker promptly disappears into the jungle. Pi sends him off with a little oration which is straight out of the Oscar ceremony (Tom Hanks taking the Philadelphia awards): “I would like to say formally: Richard Parker, thank you. Thank you for saving my life. And now go where you must…You will always be with me, in my heart.” (Pi also sings Happy Birthday all alone on his boat on his mother’s birthday — another echt Hollywood moment.) Pi recovers amid Mexican kindnesses, to have two Japanese men from the Maritime Department officially quiz him over the credibility of his account. And that is when the Roshomon element surfaces, together with sundry remarks on invention and belief, the great problem of faith: “Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer.”

Pi then turns the novel round and tells a nasty, short and brutish tale. Pi, his mother, the ship’s cook and a sailor were the survivors on the boat. The cook kills the sailor, with some help from mother and son; Pi and the cook nibble on the sailor. The cook then kills the mother, beheads her and hurls the head at Pi. Pi kills the cook and eats his liver. “Solitude began. I turned to God. I survived.” The bemused Japanese officials wonder if hyena=cook, zebra=sailor, and orang-utan=mother. Does that mean that tiger=boy' But faith mustn’t ask cussed questions in order to separate facts from stories. It all boils down to that dread cliché: Willing Suspension of Disbelief. But, thank god, Martel spares us this one.

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