Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Take the Literary Journey before the 3D Experience

CLICK HERE to read my review of Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi in 3D

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“I have a story that will make you believe in God.” — Life of Pi

I usually like to read the book first before seeing the film. I know full well that the two are different forms of artistic medium, but I’m intrigued by the adaptation process of transposing the literary into the visual. So, before Ang Lee’s 3D production comes out in the fall, I’ve recently reread Life of Pi, the 2002 Man Booker Prize winner by Canadian author Yann Martel.

After finishing Midnight’s Children a couple of months ago, also in preparation for the upcoming film version, I feel like I am all toned-up for magic realism.  Life of Pi leads me to retake a magical journey. This time around, I am much fonder of the delightful tale, deceptively simple and yet full of insights. The reader might first find the tidbits of animal facts and behavior amusing, only to resonate with their parallels in the human society.

Martel’s allegory is at times humorous, at times poetic and poignant, and throughout, engaging storytelling with heart and soul.

Pondicherry entered the Union of India on November 1, 1954. The Pondicherry zoo is in the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens. It is founded, owned and operated by Santosh Patel, father of Piscine Molitor Patel, more succinctly, Pi, the protagonist of our story.

Pi grows up in the zoo, animal lover by nature, animal keeper by nurture, and God seeker by creation. So when his father decides to sell the zoo, due to a lack of interest from the public, Pi, though young, understands it is only a sign of the times. The zoo and religion, both are misconstrued as confinement:

I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.

Pi’s father plans to leave India and start a new life in Canada. Other than the lack of prospect in the zoo business, Mrs. Ghandi’s government measures also play a part in his decision. In June, 1977, the Patel family steps on board the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum and set sail for Canada, with them are the animals sold to various zoos in North America.

Here begins the adventure of Pi. Unable to sleep one night, Pi walks out of his cabin only to hear an explosion moment later. Thus his life is spared as he is thrown into a lifeboat while his family is still trapped below deck. All alone, 16 year-old Pi looks back from the lifeboat in horror and watches helplessly as the ship carrying his family quickly sinks into the dark, oblivious ocean.

For 227 days, Pi drifts in the vast open sea in a 26-foot lifeboat. Not quite alone, for there with him are a zebra, an orangutan named Orange Juice, a spotted hyena, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Soon, there remain only two of them, Richard Parker by his mere physical might, and Pi, by his intelligence and resourcefulness.

Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind.

Wise beyond his years, Pi has to use available resources to get food and water, set up routines, defend himself from predators, assert his spacial and social dominance, and above all, conquer loneliness and despair. Ironically, in the minimal existence on the 26- foot lifeboat, Pi finds motivation to live in the company of the hungry Bengal tiger Richard Parker. He has successfully turned a threat into comradeship.

After many days, they drift towards an island of meerkats. There Pi finds an abundance of algae and meerkats as food. Complacency begins to set in until the chilling discovery of human teeth drives him out to sea again.

What sets this book apart from just another survival, castaway story is its spiritual quest lyrically expressed. Pi is a deeply religious soul. While he has embraced various paths in his search, his ultimate goal is to find God. It is in his tumultuous ordeal, a tiny speck in the vast ocean, tossed and thrown by unconquerable elements that Pi experiences the presence of God. The author’s seemingly straight forward adventure embeds a magical, existential allegory.

In bare existence, Pi can still find exhiliaration in the smallest of blessings:

… You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you’re at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you’re the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish.

And in the midst of utter despair, the spiritual faculty can still respond. Amidst turmoils and rough seas, Pi rejoices as he beholds the wonders of creation, the inexhaustible menagerie of life, and nature displayed, raw and uncensored. One time, a magnificent bolt of lightning arouses a thunderous cosmic effect without and within, striking him speechless:

This is miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity. .. this thing so vast and fantastic. I was breathless and wordless. I lay back on the tarpaulin, arms and legs spread wide. The rain chillded me to the bone. But I was smiling… I felt genuine happiness.

That momentary happiness is finally realized in true salvation. Pi and Richard Parker are saved as their boat drifts near the shore of Mexico where they are rescued. Richard Parker quickly disappears into the jungle. But the story doesn’t end there. It’s the last bit that makes Life of Pi even more thought-provoking.

Two Japanese employees of the shipping company come to interview Pi in order to find out the cause of the shipwreck. As they question the lone survivor of the Tsimtsum in a Mexican hospital, they respond to Pi’s retelling of his ordeal with polite skepticism and denial. The magical is not easily accepted by realists.

Author Yann Martel tells us a compelling survival story only to have it negated by two people convinced of its implausibility, rationalists bent on seeking evidence based only on reasoning. Fantasy and imagination are often readily presumed to be falsehood.

With Pi’s tale being dismissed by the interviewers, Martel has ingeniously crafted an allegory showing us the value of stories, teasing us with the definition of truth and reality, while transporting us to a realm beyond the limits of the intellect… maybe on that level, somehow, like Pi, we can get a glimpse of God.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Vintage Canada Edition, 2002, 354 pages.

The three cover images on this post: Vintage Canada edition, U.S. Mariner Books edition, and movie-tie-in edition coming out October, 2012, also from Mariner Books.

This review has been published in the August 31, 2012 print issue of Asian American Press. Online edition here. For those curious about what Arti is like, the mystery is revealed there.

CLICK HERE to watch the TRAILER of the film, opener of the 50th New York Film Festival on Sept. 28th, 2012.

CLICK HERE for a list of highly anticipated film adaptations from literary sources coming out this fall.

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Coda

I had the pleasure to meet author Yann Martel in a reading two years ago. He was very friendly and affable, took time to chat with me, signed my copy of the book and another one I’d intended for my son. Not a tale, here are the photos:

In the title page of my son’s copy, he wrote:

“To ___,

May you reach the coast of Mexico.”

Don’t we all need to find shore to land?

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

35 thoughts on “Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Take the Literary Journey before the 3D Experience”

  1. What a wonderful review! I have never been entirely sure that I was interested in this book, but you may have changed my mind. I love the idea of the spiritual dimension to this narrative.

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    1. litlove,

      Yann Martel studied philosophy when he was in university. So I’m glad he uses that and mashes it with religion into this castaway story. Pi is also an endearing character. I think you’ll enjoy this book.

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  2. I love how Ang Lee – notorious for his slow pace – is making the movie of a boy who sits on a boat for a year. Part of me is excited, part of me is worried about staying awake. It’s a wonderful novel but I’m worried about how easily it’s going to translate into a movie…

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    1. platformpieces,

      Have you seen the trailer? Click on the link I’ve provided in the post and watch it. It’s mesmerizing. I trust the story is in good hands, I think Lee is capable to combine the spiritual, aesthetic, and cinematic elements in his work. My major dilemma though, is not that it would get ‘boring’, but that whether I should see it in 3D or not… since I’m very sensitive and highly prone to motion sickness. 😉

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    1. Joey,

      Welcome! I admit I didn’t quite ‘get it’ the first time reading it a few years ago. This time around, I appreciate it much more. I’m sure you’ll be reading it again in the future.

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    1. The movie will open the NYFF Sept. 28, general release in the U.S. is Nov. 21 You may be able to see it before I do because they don’t even have a Canadian release date yet.

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  3. I remember reading your first review of this book, Arti. I also remember not being much taken with it – a fantasy about a shipwrecked fellow traveling with a tiger just didn’t seem worth taking time for.

    Interesting that I found this review so compelling. Part of it may be your re-read, and your new appreciation for it. I think, too, that context makes a big difference. It’s become so clear that the forces represented by the interviewers in the hospital are trying to take over our society. Just yesterday, two things of note happened at the Democratic convention – any reference to God was taken out of the Democratic party platform, even such phrases as “God-given abilities”, and one of the videos shown to the gathered convention declares “government is the only thing we all belong to”.

    The statement about government being our primary community distressed me so much I sent out some tweets about it – and then learned, to my chagrin, that even when you reconsider and delete tweets, they’re still out there! But I think I’m ready for both the book and the movie – such powerful statements of the power of imagination, the existence of a larger reality and the capacity of the human soul to not only endure but prevail are critical today.

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    1. Linda,

      This is my only book review on Life of Pi. I think you might be thinking of my list of fall movies based on literary sources.

      Thank you for your eloquent comment. I can certainly empathize with your sentiments, even as an outsider of U.S. politics. But take heart, God is now welcomed back into the Democratic platform, just learned on CNN. Anyway, this points right to the value of this book, because in there, we see Pi’s sincere search for God, through various religions, all for reverence and pure motives… not even for his own survival.

      I also admire that author Yann Martel is so comfortable to write and not shy away from ‘taboo’ words and concepts such as God, religion, and prayer. What Pi represents is man’s search for meaning and the transcendent, for deep down he knows there is a power much higher than himself. His tumultuous ordeal has only magnified his conviction.

      Again, thank you for stirring some ripples in this little pond.

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    1. LOL… what timing. Anyway, I’m sure you can finish Almina in a few days time. Once you got that out of the way, you can start Pi. Since Pi needs more time to savour and digest, you might want to start from the beginning again once you’ve finished. There are certainly intriguing perspectives in there that you’d want to reread and clarify.

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  4. Your overview of this book reminded me how much I loved this book. I think Rick has it and I need to reclaim it for a re-read before the movie. You bring up a lot of perspectives that I had forgotten and am eager to review for another time!

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    1. You probably will see the film earlier than I do. The film will open the NYFF Sept. 28 and general release in the U.S. in Nov. But as of now, still no dates set for Canada yet. But, yes, good time to reread before the film comes out… you want to recapture your own visuals first.

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  5. Ah, Arti…you’re still here…and compelling me to read this book which has languished on the bookshelf for ages…and I am intrigued by the film…but, first things first! Hello to you and your beautiful province…more later, Oh

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    1. Oh,

      I’m so excited you’re still flying about in the bloggisphere… and glad you took time to drop in and leave a note. How are you? Yes, let books and films connect us all… Hope to hear from you again soon. 😉

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  6. I am trying to catch up again – just read your film review To Rome with Love – it sounds like one to see. I went to Rome, Italy, years ago and enjoyed it very much – there were not so many tourists then. We went back close to Rome two years ago but it was pouring rain so we did not go into the city. We did have a cappuccino though and frankly they taste so much better in Italy – the latte too – it must be the water!!
    I’d like to see the remake of Les Liaisons Dangereuses – I saw the Vadim film with Jeanne Moreau in 1960 in Paris – I don’t remember it well but at the time I loved it. Jeanne Moreau is one of my favorites anyway. Many good films coming up
    .
    Pondicherry has been a place I have long dreamed to visit. It is not far from Chennai (ex Madras) and I even found about hotels there. There is still a French influence there. You may not like what I have to say now – the book sounds interesting but right now I am not into religious books so Pi experience would not hold me. The public forced the Democratic platform to speak about God. In a country where there is a supposed separation of church and state it is hard to believe that religion should be forced on people in the political arena. I respect religion but in the US most people do not respect the non-religious – which amount to more than 34% of the population. In France politics is politics and religion is personal and not pushed on the public (they would not accept it anyway.) Here the religious (Christian) want their way – what about Muslim? Jews? Hindus? They pay taxes like everyone else and they vote too. Here in the South if you are not Christian you might as well not have any friends – when I say that I am Buddhist people stare at me like I am from out of space. I wish the US was more tolerant – did you hear about the Muslim mosque in Tennessee which has been burnt and vandalized many times?

    I just received the book The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian – have you heard of it?

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    1. Vagabonde,

      Thank you for stopping by the pond and stirring some ripples. I appreciate the candid sharing of your views.

      The book Life of Pi is nothing close to what you might think it is. In contrast to the spectacle occurring in the political arena of your country, and the leaving out or letting in of the name of ‘God’ for practical purposes, what the book portrays is a totally different picture.

      This is by no means a ‘religious’ book in that it’s not proselytizing or even promoting any one religion. Rather, the author has depicted what could well be the purest kind of spiritual quest, the innocent search for the Transcendent from the heart of a child, mind you, with such fervent devotion that’s being frowned upon by his non-religious family. Pi’s search and awe spring from a deep yearning of a humble soul, with no ulterior motive, no political agenda, no coercive influence, no material gains.

      To shake off any preconception one may have that the book is ‘proselytizing’ in the Christian sense, the reader would soon discover that as a Hindu child growing up in India, Pi, against the advice of his family, embraces Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Further, it is the Muslim practices that he mainly adheres to throughout the book.

      As an outsider observing the political landscape of my neighbor to the south, I lament the increasing polarization of views and stance in recent decades. It is my hope that in literature and the arts, the universal can be communicated, appreciated and shared. Life of Pi could well be one exemplar of such an attempt.

      Thanks again for your frequent visits and sharing of your thoughts.

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  7. Dear Arti, just like you to entice one to reread. I used to love the preblogging days when I could reread to my heart’s content. Now that the TBR is tipping over, it makes me feel guilty to reread when there are so many others unread, waiting. On the other hand, it makes me feel guilty, too, not giving as much quality time with the ones I’ve loved before. After reading your entry, I’m reminded that it’s important to reconnect with a book before watching the film, especially something as conceptual as this, to enhance the film’s depth and make it richer and more meaningful. Although sometimes I’m tempted to just push my preconceived thoughts (from the reading) away, just to see if I’m able to appreciate the film without having known the story’s soul, it’s difficult as a reader not to connect with a film through a book. Guess I’ll just have to accept that. Thanks for the reminder that we need to visit this lovely book once more.

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    1. Claire,

      I totally understand when you say “… it’s difficult as a reader not to connect with a film through a book.” I know full well that the two ought to be taken as separate entities, two distinct art forms. Nevertheless, I feel the essence, the soul, if you will of the book should not be left out. If the film is just another cast-away story, another survival genre flick, then it would have missed the boat totally (pun intended). 😉 So hopefully Ang Lee’s adaptation is the visualization of the essence of Life of Pi. It doesn’t have to be exact, at least attempt to be as thought-provoking and soul-stirring. That’s all.

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  8. I read it so long ago and couldn’t remember any of it anymore except there is a boy and a tiger on the boat! It would be worth reading it and blog about it as well. You have a wonderful blog here, Not sure why I took so long to discover your blog but better late than never, I say! 😉

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  9. Lovely review Arti. I loved this book when I read it years ago … Loved its exploration of survival and the power of stories. And I thought the ending was inspired. Made me laugh so much. I saw the trailer at the movies a week or so ago. Can’t wait to see the film.

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    1. WG,

      Thanks. Yes, I’m really curious to see the Ang Lee treatment of this ingenious work. Considering all the chaos in the world in reaction to the notion of ‘God’ and ‘religion’, from all sides, it’s simply beautiful to ponder on the idea of communion with the Transcendent with such innocence and purity.

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  10. I enjoyed following your link to the published piece — congratulations on that.

    But, oh, your words make me wish I had time to reread this story before the movie’s release. But, I don’t. But at least now, the thought of rereading it is now swimming in my subconscious, where before, it laid buried under a very heavy load of new titles awaiting my intentions.

    It’s a good book for Advent, I’m thinking. Or Lent, even, if forces of life attraction pull me elsewhere.

    You may not recall, Arti, what I’ll never forget… that it was your other post on Yann Martel about — “What is Stephen Harper Reading?” — that inspired me to dust off “Life of Pi” the first time around. There could be some nice symmetry if my second bite of the story comes as gift from your hand, too!

    Nicely done.

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    1. Janell,

      Oh I don’t remember that… Thanks so much for reminding me about Yann Martel’s effort to get our PM to read more. I’m glad it prompted you to reread Life of Pi too. The film just premiered at the NYFF a couple of days ago. The reviews all point to its being an Oscar contender come next Award Season. I’m eager to see how Ang Lee transpose that on screen. I like your suggestion of an Advent or Lent reread. It’s not the religiosity, but the spirituality that’s meaningful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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