On occasion, I’ll admit I wish I was back in the college classroom teaching literature, especially when I come upon a novel that has level upon level of meaning.
One such novel is The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, a Saskatchewan writer. My copy states that when it was published in 2001 there were more than six million copies in print. I can see high school and college literature classes studying this novel in decades to come. I’d like to be in on the discussion.
The novel is about a boy, a boat, and a Bengal tiger adrift on the Pacific Ocean for 227 days. The framework of the book is fairly simple: a middle-aged man by the name of Patel, originally from India, is telling his story to a writer.
“I have a story that will make you believe in God,” he tells the writer. He calls himself Pi, the symbol for the geometric ratio that goes on and on.
His father, a zookeeper in India, sold his animals when the political climate in his native country became uncomfortable, and decided to move to Canada. The family boards a ship with several zoo animals and heads for America, only to experience shipwreck on the Pacific Ocean.
The only survivors are Pi, a 450-pound tiger named Richard Parker, an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, a rat, some flies and cockroaches—an interesting ecosystem. On the journey the hyena kills the zebra and orangutan, the tiger kills the hyena and the rat, and the flies and cockroaches fly off into self-destruction.
What I like about the book is that it can be read at many levels:
Adventure/action story full of suspense and danger. Life aboard a small lifeboat with a tiger brings with it anxious moments about who will survive. It brought to mind novels like Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Pi has an adult tiger in front of him, sharks beneath him, and a storm raging around him. Will he endure?
To stay at that level means restricting yourself to a diet of skim milk when you could feast on cream, lots of it. So read it as a survival story similar to Swiss Family Robinson which survived for 38 days or Robinson Crusoe who also went on an extended journey and survived by using his wits.
If you want something more, read it as the story of human/animal relationships in the same category as Moby Dick. Ahab fought the Great White Whale. Pi Patel fought a fierce Bengal tiger. Each novel has a wealth of information about the animal worlds but also about life’s enigmas.
I see it also as a coming of age story, similar to Huckleberry Finn, or even Catcher in the Rye. A young man undergoes initiation into the adult world as he comes to new awareness about himself, his environment and life itself. At one point in his scary journey Pi makes a decision to stay alive. He pits his moral strength against the tiger’s brute strength. He is no longer a boy but a man.
I find some readers think of it as mystical/fantasy/fiction bordering on science fiction. Yes, certainly there must be a willing suspension of disbelief to enjoy the fantastic elements of the book. Author Martel creates a tiny world in a 26-foot lifeboat and peoples it with Pi, the tiger, a hyena, orangutan, zebra and rat, and sends the remnants of this little ecosystem across the Pacific until they reach the coast of Mexico.
The reader has to accept certain premises – shipwreck, a tiger glaring across the boat at you for a good part of a year, hauling in fish after fish and turtle after turtle to keep you and the tiger alive . The story becomes more and more out-of-this world with each chapter, especially when the reader arrives at the floating island, which at first seems near perfect, with a Tree of Death instead of a Tree of Life . Its inhabitants are thousands, maybe millions, of meerkats, whose essence is meekness as opposed to Richard Parker’s ferociousness.
After reading it again recently I have begun to see it as akin to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with numerous archetypal images. Both Christian and Pi are pilgrims, one by land, the other by sea, away from family, order, and community to isolation, disorder and loneliness and weakness and despair and eventual rescue.
The main question remains: What was the author trying to say through this compelling read? Is it about a boy’s search for God? He is a Hindu, becomes a Christian, and also a Muslim, and in trying moments runs through his pantheon of gods in desperate prayer. What does Richard Parker, the tiger symbolize?
Pi admits that without Richard Parker in the boat he would never have survived. Unless we have an enemy to battle, we lose the will to live and become like the meerkats who almost beg to be killed. In the end Pi is grateful for having had the huge Bengal tiger Richard Parker on the long journey with him. The tiger kept him alive.
Would the novel have persuaded me to believe in God? That is debatable. It did reinforce in me the need to always live with hope, regardless how grim the circumstances.
And Martel does this in one hundred chapters, short and long, just like life, which has its short and long chapters.