Of Faith and Transformation

At least once in our existence, we find ourselves in the midst of a situation we never thought we would find ourselves in. The mere thought or idea of it tests the limits of our imagination. It simply defies contravention and logic. In incredulity, we wipe our eyes to confirm and reconfirm if indeed such situation is before us. As it slowly dawns on us, we either buckle up for the ride or give up. It is from these once-in-a-lifetime experiences that we grow and learn more about ourselves, especially the limits of what the human spirit can conquer. They transform us, and in the the process, better versions of ourselves emerge. It is these transformative experiences that we learn lessons we carry with us as we grow up.

For Tamil Indian Piscine Molitor Patel, his personal experience goes beyond the limits of imagination. His individual journey, famously captured by Canadian writer Yann Martel in his second novel, Life of Pi, opened various avenues for self-growth and ruminations. The first part of the novel explored the primary protagonist’s early life in the Indian city of Pondicherry, a former French territory carved out of the primarily British India. Piscine Molitor is a rather whimsical birthname derived from a famous Parisian swimming pool complex. His unusual name made Piscine Molitor the subject of ridicule by his peers who intentionally mispronounced his name as “pissing”. Alas, his salvation came when he transferred Petit Seminaire. In a new environment with no one the least interested about his past, he introduced himself as “Pi”.

The first part was also an examination of Pi’s family and his background. The Patels were the keepers of the local zoo. The once prolific business has begun to shrink in size over the years because of the lack of general interest. The zoo’s most famous denizen was a Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Richard Parker was captured when he was still a young cub separated from his mother who once terrorized a local village. Richard Parker was also the subject of Pi’s interest. The family’s fate further changed when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared “The Emergency” in February 1976.

“These people fail to realize that is is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”

~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Fleeing from what would be one of independent India’s most controversial phases, the Patel patriarch decided to sell the zoo and immigrate to Canada. The Patels, along with animals they deemed could be sold in Canada, boarded the Japanese freighter Tsimtsum. Unfortunately, a couple of days after embarking from the port of Manila, the ship encountered an unexpected storm which caused it to sink. Whilst the rest of the crew perished, Pi managed to escape in a small lifeboat. But it wasn’t only Pi who managed to survive. Pi found himself in the company of a motley crew – a spotted hyena, a wounded Grant’s zebra, and a female orangutan named Orange Juice. Under the boat’s tarpaulin lurked another unexpected survivor: Richard Parker. The already narrow chances of surviving further became slimmer.

Just like Pi, we often find ourselves in situations we never expected to find ourselves in. At first, we are disoriented, flustered at being out of our comfort zone. But as reality sinks in, a new realization dawns: we must quickly act. Martel did a commendable job of projecting this disorientation through Pi. As instincts kick in, the first thing Pi did was find ways to protect himself. Survival, after all, was of paramount importance. He checked everything he could use, learn everything he needs to learn. The vast Pacific Ocean is an intimidating sight. There is a very slim gap between being swallowed by the vastness and making it through. Common sense is essential in a challenging environment.

In an unexpected situation, Pi relied on his reserve of knowledge he has gained so far learned in his young life. The zoo, which his father managed, was Pi’s first school. It gave him his earlier lessons about life. “Getting animals used to the presence of humans is at the heart of the art and science of zookeeping. The key aim is to diminish an animal’s flight distance, which is the minimum distance at which an animal wants to keep a perceived enemy.” This knowledge came in handy in a lifeboat adrift on a wide ocean tantamount to oblivion. Pi also kept a journal where he recounted several events while waiting to be rescued.

However, Life of Pi doesn’t reduce itself into a mere story of survival. Martel, with his degree in philosophy, realizes this. Survival, on the surface, is the great blanket that shrouds the story. Underneath this surface are deeper and profound messages. Martel craftily wove many seminal philosophical points in the narrative. The biggest of which pertain to harmony, of seamlessly merging with our environment. Despite Richard Parker’s daunting presence, Pi made sure that he is properly fed. Every food he caught, he shared with Richard Parker. He learned to live in harmony with the thing that daunted him the most. There was a stark dichotomy between the two remaining denizens of the lifeboat but, ironically or perhaps philosophically, they both relied on each other to survive.

“To be a castaway is to be caught in a narrowing ballet of circles. You are at the centre of one circle, while above you two opposing circles spin about. The sun distresses you life a crowd, a noisy, invasive crowd that makes you want to hide. The moon distresses you by silently reminding you of your solitude. You open your eyes wide to escape the loneliness”

~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Harmony was underscored in other circumstances as well. The most vivid portrait of harmony was exploration of religion in the first part of the novel. Pi was raised as a Hindu practicing vegetarianism. He reached an intersection when he turned fourteen. This quandary made him explore the values of Christianity and Islam. Realizing that each had its own merit and benefit, Pi decided to abide by the teachings of these primary religions. He opted to understand God through these three lenses, despite his parents’ reproof and the frustration of his religious mentors. The vestiges of religion reverberated all throughout the narrative.

Beyond religion, the narrative can be studied through the symbols that Martel masterfully wove into the novel’s lush prose. Apart from Pi, Richard Parker loomed above the story. On one lens, he can be seen as a supernatural presence. He can also be seen as a mirror of Pi. For some, it is an allusion to our biggest fears. Nevertheless, each provides us transformational experiences. As Pi admitted in his journal: “But there is more to it. I will come clean. I will tell you a secret: a part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died Il will be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker. He kept me from thinking too much about my family and my tragic circumstances. He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it, yet at the same time I was grateful. I am grateful.”

In telling the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, Martel crafted a highly-imaginative narrative that explored several seminal themes. He did a commendable job of grappling with the narrative’s primary theme. His deep grasp of philosophy translated well in the story of Pi. Martel also made his presence felt early in the narrative with his fictional recount of the artistic process that led to Life of Pi. It was a fictional account that reinforced another subtle theme underscored in the story: the boundaries between what is fictional and what is real. “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

Martel did a great job in conveying important messages in Life of Pi that it took some time before flaws begun to surface. In the concluding pages of the story, Martel elucidated explicit schools of thoughts upon which to approach and examine the narrative. However, it weighed down on the construction of the second part of the novel. On its own, the second part barely needed interpretations. Martel wrote it with versatility and openness that pushes the readers’ imagination. It can be studied under various lenses, each starkly different from the other. The last part reiterated a question that pervaded the second part: which story does one opt to believe?

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi

The novel’s blemish, however, is a minor dot in an ocean of magnificent achievements. Deservedly winning the 2002 Man Booker Prize, Life of Pi is a lush and prolific tale that dissected several moral and philosophical quandaries, from religion to survivalism. Martel managed to underscore relevant messages such as the importance of harmony and coexistence. In the synopsis, it was emphasized that Pi’s story will make the readers believe in the presence of a Supreme Being. In a way, it does. But it does more than that. Pi’s story also makes one believe in people and the spaces that the empowered human spirit can conquer.

Ratings

86%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 28%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

It has been years since I watched Life of Pi, a movie I didn’t plan to watch. I have never been much of a movie fan. A good friend coaxed me into finally watching it, citing its profound messages that has resonated on him; something that is uncharacteristic of him I guess (HAHA). I did end up appreciating the movie and the experience. Imagine my delight when I learned it was adapted from a book although I can’t remember why I shied off from reading the novel. A couple of years later, I did change my mind and bought the book which, after a couple more years, I finally read as part of my 2021 Booker Prize Reading month. Just like the movie, I enjoyed the text version of Life of Pi. The philosophical intersections were finely explored. The symbolisms can be subversive in the flow of the story. At times, they were also overbearing. In its concluding pages, Martel gave two contrasting schools of thoughts upon which to appreciate and understand the narrative. The narrative did a commendable job in expressing and exploring these schools of thoughts that an explicit elucidation is unnecessary.

Book Specs

Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Canongate
Publishing Date: 2002
Number of Pages: 319
Genre: Philosophical

Synopsis

After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The crew of the surviving vessel consists of a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orangutan, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger and Pi – a 16-year-old Indian boy. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary pieces of literary fiction of recent years.

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is a transformative novel, a dazzling work of imagination that will delight and astound readers in equal measure. It is a triumph of storytelling and a tale that will, as one character puts it, make you believe in God. Can a reader reasonably ask for anything more?

About the Author

Yann Martel war born on June 25, 1963 in Salamanca, Spain to French-Canadian parents studying at the University of Salamanca. Shortly after his birth, the young family moved to Coimbra, Portugal, then to Madrid, Spain.

The Martels then moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, before finally settling in Victoria, British Columbia. He was raised in San Jose, Costa Rica, Paris, France, and Madrid, Spain after his parents joined the Canadian foreign service. He completed an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. Prior to pursuing a career in literature, Martel worked odd jobs such as a parking lot attendant in Ottawa, and as a security guard at the Canadian embassy in Paris.

Martel started writing while studying at the university. His first works were short stories published by literary magazines. The first to be published was Mister Ali and the Barrelmaker which appeared in The Malahat Review in 1988. His 1990 short story The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, also published by The Malahat Review, won Martel the 1991 Journey Prize. His first short stories were collectively published in 1993 as Seven Stories. In 1996, Martel published his first novel, Self to modest success. It was his second novel, Life of Pi (2001) that made him a household name. It won him the 2002 Man Booker Prize. It was also a bestseller in several countries and was eventually adapted into a film. His latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, was published in 2016.

Following his success with Life of Pi, Martel was the Samuel Fischer Visiting Professor at the Institute of Comparative Literature, Free University of Berlin in 2002. He was also writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library in 2003 and was the Visiting Scholar at the University of Saskatchewan from 2005 to 2007. Martel currently resides in Saskatoon with his wife, writer Alice Kuipers, and their four children.