“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel was first published in September 2001. Even though just a year later it won one of the most prestigious commendation awards – “The Man Booker Prize” it languished in obscurity for nearly 11 years until Ang Lee decided to turn it into the blockbuster which won 4 Oscars.
When I watched the trailer and realized that it was a book-to-movie adaptation, I marked it as a must-read. Let’s be honest! A tiger on a lifeboat is an irresistible temptation for a compulsive fiend for metaphors like me. I was simultaneously repulsed, flummoxed and compelled by this book. Its repugnant depiction of the reality of our inner world was so faithful that it put me off. Nonetheless, I was impelled to go on reading due to the tantalizing prospect of figuring out the ostensible hodgepodge of metaphors.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first one introduces us to Piscine Mortel Pater, who is quite a maverick. Pi, as he establishes himself in society, is the son of the only zoo keeper in Pondicherry, India. He has grown up among animals and learned the most important lesson about life through attentive scrutiny of their behavior. “Life will defend itself no matter how small it is. Every animal is ferocious and dangerous. It may not kill you, but it will certainly injure you”
Through the magnificent rapport he has developed with them he also comes to terms with the adulation and deference towards our intricate universe. He reconciles the multifarious forms of love and reverence by embracing three religions: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. In what we find absurd about his eclectic belief, he finds reprieve, just like in his chosen nickname. “And so in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge”
The second and the third part are utterly different from their precursor. It makes me feel as if I’ve read two distinct stories, compressed into a common binding. Probably in hindsight that’s what life looks like as well, rife with fortuitous twists and cloaked vagaries. “Things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to, but what can you do? You must take life the way it comes at you and make the best of it.”
Pi goes on to recount the outcome of his family’s departure from India to Canada. Their ship sinks with “a monstrous metallic blurp“. He tells the story of his survival – the flickering hope, the momentous bliss, the unfailing sorrow and the indomitable despair of a castaway, stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger, or, in another version of events with real people. Yann Martel grants us the opportunity to choose which account we like better – the apocryphal one or the brutal one.
By subtle parallels between human and animal nature he allows us a peek behind the spurious decorum of our kind. “Life of Pi” reconnects us with the violence and detachment of our evolutionary inferiors. The resemblance between their behavior, social hierarchy and instinctive response to any provocation and our own everyday conduct is astonishing. We maintain that we have left our wild roots rotting in the course of evolution but there are infallibly some vestiges that spring up to refute this fabulous belief. When we are pushed over the limits of our forbearance, when we are threatened, when we are scared and hungry, rationality and principles slip out of our minds so that we become dependent once again on our basic bellicose instincts for survival.
“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”
In his persevering attempts to domesticate the tiger, his only loyal companion – Richard Parker, Pi is in actuality trying to tame his own untrammeled atrocity which has broken out of its well-guarded prison cage due to the abject misery that has quaked the boy’s inner world. “For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out” Thus a spectacular struggle arises between humane conscience and brutish instinctiveness.
But the novel doesn’t dwell only on this glorious battle. It explores the intangible sources of simple joys in life, the complete devotion to religious beliefs, the credibility of the philosophies we choose as guiding stars, the significance of first impressions and the meaning of it all – why do we keep going on? It also offers scintillating arguments in support of zoos that I found quite compelling even though I am against this type of animal confinement.
Notwithstanding the vivid descriptions of slaughter and cannibalism, “Life of Pi” is a brilliant novel. It will indisputably land up a special place in your library. I must warn you, though.
Beware your own Richard Parker!