Yann Martel

 

Life of Pi

 

Martel’s style is very pleasant to read. He’s quite gentle and courteous – even in describing some awful deprivations. You get the feel of being with the gentle and courteous Pi. In the early chapters in the book we are able to enjoy not only his company, but also his recollections of his often idyllic upbringing on his family’s business zoo as he came to delight in not only Hinduism, but in Christianity and Islam as well. The voice moves smoothly between narration and oration, with Pi weaving in thought-provoking and wonderfully articulate portions of his perhaps unfashionable personal philosophy.

 

Then the book veers into the extended narrative (or parable?) of Pi’s utterly torturous and fabulous ordeal surviving for months at sea in a lifeboat also occupied by a massive Bengal tiger! There’s not so much philosophy here – rather it becomes an adventure/survival book, describing, often in some detail, exactly how someone might get through such an extreme situation. It’s an impressive feat of imagination – to carry your readers through more than half a book where there is only one setting and one character. And it gets difficult at times: please, Martel, will you let this awful story end and save Pi (and us!). Remember, though, Martel is always thoughtful: before anything turns nasty we already have been reassured, in the most endearing of domestic settings, that ‘this story has a happy ending’. Part of me is tempted to lend the book to a friend who loves these sort of survival against all odds stories – but I have a feeling he’d feel ripped off that it was fiction, no matter how convincing it sounded. Whatever, it’s a gripping and gruelling story.

 

I imagine he got a Booker because a lot of readers, unlike me, felt the conclusion wonderfully tied together the earlier syncretic musings and the incredible tale. However while I think I worked it out, the climax hardly leapt out and slapped me in the face (which is something I really like a novel to do). The crucial lesson comes when insurance men are asked to choose between two stories: an inspiring and unbelievable one with a tiger, and more believable ugly one:

“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.”

“Uhh…”

“You want a story without animals.”

“Yes!”

“Without tigers or orang-utans.”

“That’s right.”

“Without hyenas or zebras.”

“Without them.”

“Without meerkats or mongooses.”

“We don’t want them.”

“Without giraffes or hippopotamuses.”

“We will plug our ears with our fingers!”

“So I’m right, you want a story without animals.”

But, of course, that is foolish: there are animals, and they are incredible – it’s lying to yourself to blind your eyes to the fantastic. ‘Incredible’ is an excellent word here: a Bengal tiger is utterly ‘credible’ – we know they exist – but at the same time on an emotional/spiritual level … incredible. Perhaps Martel is challenging the pedestrian world view that, indefensibly, cowardly, denies awe – that doesn’t want to admit to the abundant and undeniable spirituality/beauty/truth of, dammit, animals (and people and trees and stars and music and life and the rest of it). Although earlier in the book he is careful to clarify with his representative atheist teacher, a man who passionately loves science:

…It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap.

            I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while … but we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

 

In a sense for Martel the vibe, man, is everything. If you can pick it up in a mosque, at a zoo, catching a wave, in the eyes of a child, taking the mass, reading a scripture (any scripture), staring down a microscope … grab it. Relish it. Flee the ‘dry, yeastless factuality’ of agnostic life, and joyfully claim, ‘the better story’:

Words of divine consciousness: moral exaltation; lasting feelings of elevation, elation, joy; a quickening of the moral sense, which strikes one as more important than an intellectual understanding of things; an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realisation that the founding principal of existence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably.

I pause. What of God’s silence? I think it over. I add:

An intellect confounded yet a trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose.

At times I’ve held onto this sort of thing: when some of Jesus’ words really sting and you just know they’re good – what other grounds do you want? What other grounds will you ultimately get anyway? It’s like Keirkegaard’s refusal to be an intellectual spectator: for truth to mean anything worthwhile for a human it must touch more than mind – it must be embraced by the whole person. It relates to A’Kempis’, “I should much rather feel compunction than be able to define it.” To Berdyaev’s, “God is that which cannot be expressed.”

 

Yet while Pi is presented as having deep religious convictions, ultimately he holds a staggeringly condescending view of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity (and atheism for that matter). The three straw-men clergy of these faiths are given comic lines when they finally meet – more like the three stooges than three wise men – and laughably blind to their overwhelming similarities outweighing their differences. Ha ha, if only they could overcome their trivial differences … this really is ugly disrespect. And ignorant – which surprises me in one as well versed as Martel clearly is. Surely he has picked that his blithe mouthing of the absurd populism – that all religions are essentially the same – flies in the face of their core convictions and defining qualities.[1] This book mixes inspired insight with insulting (but ably disguised) stupidity. For all his attacks on agnosticism, he counts as a virtue his refusal to actually take the leap to any particular faith despite crucial ultimately either/or decisions with massively differing lifeshaping (and, if you accord any credibility to the key teaching of any of them, afterlifeshaping) effects. He doesn’t even offer the notion of respecting the integrity of someone with undeniably differing beliefs: no, we’re all just trying to ‘love God’ – we really have the same beliefs (nonsense). He’s slippery though, and very cleverly immediately follows up his inflammatory ‘interfaith dialogue’ with an incisive damnation of those unfortunately numerous believers who’ll fight tooth and nail for their doctrine while ignoring the needy – a strategic defence as if to say, “if you challenge my words, you’re putting yourself in the role of the uncharitable Pharisee.”

 

There are some wonderful sound bites in the book, and some eminently quotable and telling passages for people on all sides of the theological fence. It’s very readable, often gripping and enjoyable. Even the objections I’ve raised come more from stepping back from the book or rereading parts – while on the journey Martel is wonderfully (even deceptively) palatable. And very much the right guy for the (shallow) pluralist time.

 

July 2004



[1] Perhaps it’s darker than this. One amazon reviewer suggested that the moral to Pi’s ‘pick your story’ episode was that it didn’t matter which one you picked because the important bits as far as the insurance guys are concened – the beginning and the end – are established anyway. One way to use the analogy this way would be to say Pi is suggesting that that since we’re all born and all going to die, we might as well pick whatever story we enjoy the most to get us through the middle bit.

 

Well, it was an interesting alternative to the usual (and more likely intended) interpretation that since reason will only get us so far we are better off taking a leap of faith, and we might as well leap to the more inspiring story. I’m not convinced, though, that he necessarily is saying it’s a blind leap: remember there are these incredible animals.