Not trapped in a zoo, not trapped in a building, not trapped in a cage, but trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger at sea. How long would you survive? Would you be able to overcome your fear and try to assuage the situation? Would the absurdity begin to make you think it all a dream? Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi is such a story. Playing with itself intra-textually, Martel’s story raises more questions than it answers, in the process telling a tale of survival at sea like has never been told.
Piscine Molitor Patel, more happily called Pi, is a young boy growing up in Pondicherry, India. His parents own a zoo, a facet of life that gives pleasure to an existence that is otherwise filled with taunts about his name. Deciding to move to Canada to better their prospects, one day Pi’s parents pack the animals in a freighter and head out to sea. They never arrive on Western shores, however. The ship capsizing, Pi is left afloat with only himself, a lifeboat, and a few animals—a hyena, orangutan, zebra, and Bengal tiger included. His adventure has only begun.
One of the main draws of Life of Pi is the steady and realistic manner in which Martel unpacks Pi’s adaptation to existence in the menagerie of life left to float on the sea. The boy initially tethering himself to a handmade raft to be safe from the tiger, slowly he masters his fear and builds a relationship with the jungle cat. Never a Jungle Book moment, all of Pi’s actions are focused on keeping a safe but controlled distance from the starving carnivore, the blood, sweat, and tears presented as realistically as the situation allows.
That the Life of Pi is a classic fantasy novel is highly contentious. Though the limits of reality are stretched to the supernatural upon a very limited number of occasions, occasions which little affect the main storyline. Though at times standing on its tippi-toes, Martel’s narrative keeps its feet on the ground. Magic realist at best, readers reach a better understand of the narrative’s mode upon the novel’s conclusion—a thought-provoking story scenario best left for the reader to discover.
Given the thematic scope of Life of Pi, keeping the boy’s survival at sea within realistic boundaries is of utmost importance. Coming to the end, a question is presented that requires thinking back over the story and making a decision with regards to Pi’s story. Harder than it seems given the evidence Martel plants in this latter third of the story, the novel’s goal is accomplished through intra-textual play rather than direct storytelling or moralizing. Transcending the narrative to personal belief, it’s impossible not to be left in thought regarding a number of broad topics, including human perception, religion, and existentialism.
In the end, Life of Pi is both an interesting and thought-provoking read. The tale of a boy’s survival with a savage tiger on a boat at sea engaging enough in the details, that Martel wraps the narrative in questions of a theological and personal nature only enriches the proceedings. The prose solid but not the greatest to ever have been published, the descriptions are nevertheless vivid and the plot presented in a fashion to keep the reader turning the pages. In the magic-realist footsteps of such Indian works as The Circle of Reason (Amitiav Ghosh) or Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie), Martel’s novel escapes the subcontinent for an adventure at sea unlike any that has ever been written. Featuring a premise that challenges both writer and reader realized in a stimulating story, have a try.