Good news came from across the Atlantic late last year. England’s most prestigious literary award—the Booker Prize—had been awarded to a work that made the following assertion on its inside cover: “This is a novel of such rare and wondrous storytelling that it may, as one character claims, make you believe in God. Can a reader reasonably ask for anything more?” That sophisticated English literary palettes thought this a reasonable claim—and that Canadian Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi has since become a bestseller—may be an indication that growing numbers of people, thirsting for more substance in their lives, are beginning to seek more substance in their reading. Or, alternately, it may be a comment on the brand of popular piety Martel’s novel proposes.
The protagonist of The Life of Pi is the precocious son of a pragmatic zookeeper, an Indian boy fascinated by his nation’s many faiths but forced by its many political problems to emigrate to Canada along with his family and their animal charges. During the voyage, their ship suddenly sinks, leaving the boy on a lifeboat along with a few furry survivors; ultimately only Pi and a tiger remain. As the duo drift through the Pacific Ocean, struggling to survive the elements, Pi must also struggle to survive his shipmate; he relies on his wits and his faith in, intermittently, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam to do so. After a series of adventures—some wondrous, some gruesome—their boat washes up in Mexico and the two part ways. We never hear from the tiger again, but we do hear from Pi. In fact, he retells his story as an adult living in Toronto, in a house whose décor—a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe rests beside a photo of Kaaba; a brass statue of Shiva stands beneath paintings of Christ; a prayer rug lies near a bedside Bible—inadvertently displays our protagonist’s eclectically tacky approach to religion.
The Life of Pi seems to have as many literary predecessors as India has religions. There are traces of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, St. Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, and Aesop’s Fables. But The Life of Pi also asks to be the latest in the long line of grand tales about India, novels that seek to capture what Martel himself calls “the rich, noisy, functioning madness” of the place, and a great deal of the novel’s flaws rest in that ambition. The encounters of two more famous orphans with India’s religions provide a sense of what Pi lacks. Kipling’s Kim and Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai dash from one end of India to another, experiencing the nation’s religious panoply as it must be—as frenzied, vital, occasionally terrifying—rather than as a well-meaning Canadian might imagine it: as polite, passive, frequently meek.
For example, the adult Pi, an Indian orphan-cum-Canadian immigrant, recalls finding a Gideon Bible in a hotel room. He praises the Gideons, then advises: “They should leave not only Bibles, but other sacred writings as well. I cannot think of a better way to spread the faith. No thundering from a pulpit, no condemnation from bad churches, no peer pressure, just a book of scripture quietly waiting to say hello, as gentle and powerful as a girl’s kiss on your cheek.” The author’s patent lack of appreciation for the intensity and particularity of religious devotion explains such myopic idealism and saccharine imagery. In telling us that the Bible (and “other sacred writings”) is “just a book” to spread “the faith,” Martel reveals his fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between God and religious practices. Martel offers a confusing pastiche of devotions brought into unity by the sincerity of individual intention and action, rather than by virtue of the singular truth inherent in any of the religions Pi purports to follow.
Pi’s repeated all-inclusive paeans to his private trinity of faiths detract from an otherwise enjoyable tale, which Martel achieves when he forgets about religion and concentrates on telling his young hero’s adventures. Running through the chaos of a sinking ship; watching a tiger wrestle a shark; exploring a mysterious island; devising ways to catch turtles and gather fresh water—these are but some of the novel’s small pleasures. In matters not religious, Martel chose the right narrator: Pi’s innocent voice allows us to revel in the wide-eyed pleasures of this world as only a young boy on a fantastic voyage can experience them. Consider Pi’s description of the fearful symmetry of raw elegance and sublime power occasioned by his tiger companion returning to their boat:
He surged onto the stern, quantities of water pouring off him, making my end of the boat pitch up. He balanced on the gunnel and the stern bench for a moment, assessing me. My heart grew faint. I did not think I would be able to blow into the whistle again. I looked at him blankly. He flowed down to the floor of the lifeboat and disappeared under the tarpaulin. I could see parts of him from the edges of the locker lid. I threw myself upon the tarpaulin, out of his sight—but directly above him. I felt an overwhelming urge to sprout wings and fly off.
Like Pi, we are breathless, a tiger-training whistle dangling from our lips, as much from the beauty as from the terror of a wild animal in close proximity.
However grateful we may be to Martel for such moments, the third and final section of his novel limits our general appreciation by enlisting us in a clumsy postmodern game of narration and belief. The section is comprised of a transcript between two Japanese representatives of the shipping company and Pi, recuperating in a Mexican hospital room. The Japanese have no time for Pi’s unbelievable musings and insist upon a factual account of the ship’s sinking, so Pi retells his tale, turning his animal shipmates into humans. The new version is more comprehensible but less enjoyable: either way we can never know which version “actually” happened. We likely entered the novel as skeptical as are the Japanese, but having heard the story, we now face a test of faith: Which do we believe? Of course Martel wants us to believe in Pi’s original version, with the floating banana island and the man-eating plants and the flying fish. In his view, to do so is a leap of faith, which in turn is a leap towards God: the God brought into existence by the novel itself, a strange mishmash of religious notions and figures that together comprise the deity that Pi creates and celebrates. In short, a God of fiction.
Martel should have stuck to the metaphoric approach he takes to religion at the end of the novel’s second section, when Pi finally reaches land. In his darkest moment, Pi perceives: “The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.” The next chapter opens: “When we reached land,” a phrase that with simple perfection conveys the foundation given to us when we rely on God’s power, rather than on our own. In one of the novel’s few instances of coherent religious meaning, Martel echoes St. Paul and Kempis’ Imitatio in telling us that if we turn to God in our lowest moments, inevitably we will be raised up on high. A meaningful moment, sadly set adrift amongst so much faith-as-flotsam. If only we could agree with Pi’s approach to religion, we could enjoy his Life. Were we to read in a compartmentalized way, taking bits and pieces from here and there that amuse or ennoble us, ignoring the deeper implications of such a piecemeal commitment to a unified whole, we could happily sail along with boy and tiger. But such a way of reading, of professing, indeed of living, while so symptomatic of our contemporary condition, ought not be our course.
T. S. Eliot made the following distinction: “We must believe that the greater part of our current reading matter is written for us by people who have no real belief in a supernatural order, though some of it may be written by people with individual notions of a supernatural order which are not ours.” Martel falls into the latter camp: unfortunately, his invitation to believe in God through his novel is too individualized to be reasonable. We do not turn to fiction to find the true God, and we should not turn to it to find a recipe for making a God agreeable enough to our personal tastes to believe in. We turn to good novels in part to exercise our imaginations, and The Life of Pi allows for that in some places. Yet Martel goes much further, to imply that we can find God by using our imaginations freely. But we can only hope to find God by using our imaginations wisely. Fiction, on its own, cannot create truth. The finest books can at best sound the depths of the human condition and bring rumors of the highest truths. They help chart our course towards that undiscovered country where we all hope, someday, to land.
Randy Boyagoda is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at Boston University