Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

In Life of Pi, Martel continues the recent trend (seen in The Dutch Wife and Everything is Illuminated) of a first-person narrator presented as the author, reporting a second narrator’s first-person narrative of an altogether exotic story. In all three cases, this narrative device is deployed essentially to make the reader feel, through most of the book, completely at ease and secure, only to create complete distrust by the final chapters.
Life of Pi is a Homeric epic, a quest story that doesn’t actually go anywhere, geographically, for the better part of the story. Pi, a teenager from India en route to Canada with his family and the remnants of the family zoo, is shipwrecked somewhere in the Pacific, and spends 227 days adrift in a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. He tells his story from the perspective of the survivor, as an adult living in Canada thirty years later.
The Homeric elements are subtle but solid – there’s a deceptively lush, inviting island (inhabited by aquatic meerkats, no less), blindness, storms at sea, the odd albatross, and, of course, the fact that the hero renames himself ‘Pi’ – a Greek letter and an ambiguous number, reminiscent of Odysseus telling the Cyclops that he is called no-man.
Martel makes Pi a Universalist, who believes and practices Hindu, Catholic and Muslim rituals, before, during and after his ordeal at sea. Of course, the only thing Pi really worships as a castaway is the tiger, whom he credits for giving him the will to live. This is not in the cuddly, we-befriended-each-other-to-survive sense, but in the I-will-survive-in-spite-of-the-man-eating-tiger sense. (Maybe the tiger is the .14 to the 3 religions) I was left with the impression that the religious beliefs were merely exercises in aesthetics, while the tiger was the real source of soul-level faith. Richard Parker is a real god, awful in both senses, fearsome and remote – and when Pi hits rock bottom, blind from malnutrition and waiting for death, the tiger speaks to him, as in a religious vision brought on by starvation.
Life of Pi is well-written – beautifully written, even. It made me laugh aloud in places and shudder in others. Martel has mastered the art of symbolism, making it obvious enough that you recognize the symbols at work, but subtle enough that you don’t feel you’re being whacked about the head with the 2×4 of exposition.
I recommend it without hesitation.