If it weren’t for my curiosity to find out about the real life whereabouts of Pi, Yann Martel‘s primary character in Life of Pi, I would gone on believing that this shocking tale of survival and courage, of unshakeable faith and conviction, of true desperation and uncanny desire to hold on to dear life, was real, that indeed it took place somewhere on the vastly infinite Pacific.
But the moment that I read Pi had survived 227 days as a castaway on a boat with a 450-pound Bengalese tiger, I could not go on reading without knowing more about this person. Except it turns out there is no real life Pi. Sigh!
I came close to referring to Yann Martel as what they call an unreliable narrator (I felt this way about one other story: Sophie’s World.) He sets up the story first by telling us how he went to meet the hero of his character, and inspired by such an incredible tale, decided to write about him and do it in first person. In the first few chapters, he even inserts paragraphs set in “present time” where he describes working sessions with the hero of his story.
Shame on him for making all of this up! I felt very betrayed by Yann Martel. This was purely a work of fiction, albeit a magnificent one.
No matter, I did not stop reading his obsessively brilliant novel. As my friend Arvind Devalia – who graciously gifted me this book – asks, can I just not pretend that Pi existed?
After all, I believe that Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina existed without a question; I believe that Jean val Jean and Cosette were more than the figments of Victor Hugo’s incredible imagination, and I know Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, one of a kind as they were, must have been more than fictional.
So why not believe in the existence of the Piscine Molitor Patel, the son of an Indian zookeeper, the 16-year old boy who sets out to Canada with his family and their zoo animals on a Japanese cargo ship, the sole survivor of that very ship for 227 long days, the bearer of such despair, darkness and loneliness that you can only hope the rest of his life was filled with the opposite to make up for a fraction of such suffering?
Why could he not exist if it helps us to believe more and be better in the course of our own lives?
More than anything, this tale is a one of faith and belief and while reason plays a fundamental role in every aspect of Pi’s survival, it is faith that keeps him alive. Without reason, he would have suffered more and been even more uncomfortable in his ordeal, but without his faith, well, he would have simply been lost a long time ago.
There are probably as many hours of suffering and despair on that lonely boat as there were hours of prayer and deep meditation. There is as much terror and horror as there is utter boredom and weariness. Pi travels between all extremes on the pendulum of the human emotion, experiencing – much to my surprise – not only the depths of darkness and despair but also reaching incredible heights of bliss and euphoria.
At his lowest point, Pi finds utter closeness to God and to another world and he taps into true freedom, a state of being that is only achievable, I believe, in the midst of such a long ordeal. That is the irony of it all, that in his hopeless situation, he experiences these moments of supreme connection to Mother Nature and to life and to his own existence and mortality, and for that, I was envious of Pi.
The writing flows, although I admit shamefully to my difficulties with clearly following the life boat and ship scenarios in great detail, so grand was the vocabulary of the author in this area and so impatient was I to keep going rather than look up words I did not fully comprehend.
For me, it was all about how Pi felt and what he hoped and what he dreamt and what he wished. I did not miss a single ounce of those details and Martel more than satiates my need to be intimate with Pi in thought and in feeling. I thank him for giving me that in exquisite and unforgettable prose.
What is it about being witness to another’s tragedy that we as human beings find so intriguing, fascinating and even obsessive?
Why do we obsess over the details of someone else’s ordeal and miserable plight?
Is it to make us feel more grateful for our own life? Is it a curiosity to learn about the capacity of us to endure pain and suffering?
Is it to take away practical advice so just in case we were to fall into that misfortune, we would be armed enough for the battle?
Or does the story of someone else awaken a part of us that wants to help, to cry out in compassion and to say that I feel your pain and can I do anything to ease it for you?
I know that for me, it was the compassion and the deep desire to ease the suffering of those in pain, and I cannot measure in words the compassion I felt for Pi. Martel’s words took me to a different world and brought me back changed for the better. That makes me grateful for having read Life of Pi.
It is impossible to give you the experience here in words. It is a story you must read because it cannot help but make you a better person for having known it. It is unfair to pull out quotes that will be out of context, no matter how beautiful they seem in standalone form.
To balance that, however, I know that I must do what it takes to pull you into this story and to encourage you to read and consume the literary gifts at our fingertips because they are rich in flavors of life and they articulate the truth in beautiful prose, and because we all need a gentle reminder now and again to return to the habit of reading a new story and learning a new truth.
Here is one of my favorite passages during Pi’s countless moments of despair that grip the heart of Pi:
“Oncoming death is terrible enough, but worse still is oncoming death with time to spare, time in which all the happiness that was yours and all the happiness that might have been yours becomes clear to you. You see with utter lucidity all that you are losing. The sight brings on an oppressive sadness that no car about to hit or no water about to drown you can match. The feeling is truly unbearable….” pg. 147.
So what about you? How deep is your faith? How strong is your will to survive if the tables were turned and if misfortune rocked your boat of life, no pun intended? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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