Life of Pi (the Book)
Yann Martel weaves an enthralling story in his narration of Pi’s life. I shall admit- I have not yet watched the movie, but hope to do so soon. And however the movie, the book is all about the narration, the visuals that the words evoke and the plot- definitely the plot! That Martel says Life of Pi is “A Novel” and yet, creates an author’s note for the characters in his story is a move that represents the divide between the author (real) and the author (fictitious). The author’s note is written just as the author writes himself into the rest of the story- becoming vital to the identity of Pi.
The second fascinating point in the narrative was the latter version of Pi’s survival at sea. There was the unbelievable story of the Bengal tiger, but also the story of four people on a boat that parallels the former. Both these stories are narrated to officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport. This story, while only reinforced by the former story, gives another version. So, what can be considered a story and what cannot? The Japanese men initially state that with animals involved, Pi’s narration becomes a story, while the description of only people becomes an explanation of the events after the sinking of the Tsimtsum (the boat on which Pi travels). Pi then asks, when something has to be told to somebody, doesn’t it immediately become a story? Everything that anybody describes is only their story. Of course, Pi is considered to be slightly loose in the head at that point, and the officials do not take him seriously. It’s that mild mannered question (where Pi asks, since neither story could be proved, which one of the two stories the officials wanted to believe) that does the trick. The officials eventually record Pi’s story of the Bengal tiger, thus making it an ‘official’ record. Yet, the record is based on a tale narrated by a man where no proof is given to it. This questions the validity of fact and fiction and the interchangeability of both.
I loved Martel’s characterisation of everybody, of how he fused a multitude of gods into one identity while Pi was at sea, and the humanness of animals. The names, too, were brilliantly manipulated. Piscine- like piscean; like water; like swimming pools versus salty oceans; like a fish in its element. Piscine who becomes ‘pissing’ for a very short period of time- leads to a life where everything is about marking one’s territory with one’s own piss and vomit. And then Pi. Pi which goes on to infinity, without end- like the endless expanses of water, like the unending resolution that the sixteen year old maintains, like the variety of sea-life, like the magnitude of life and living at the face of death. ‘Piscine’ is also a nomenclatural term- just as the character who goes on to study biology, who analyses the creatures he had lived with and had seen on his sojourn at sea.
Then there was Richard Parker and Thirsty None Given, whose names got interchanged. The hunter became the tiger and the tiger became a hunter, and that hunter-tiger was also a circus animal that jumped hoops. And Thirsty None Given became a hunter’s name! The movement of Richard Parker, from the small, thirsty tiger cub to the caged animal that roars with hunger at Pi and voraciously gobbles a goat, to the animal on a boat which devours all the other animals on the boat to the wild cat that shows ‘Prusten’ or an act of friendliness ending with the tiger in the wild.
Finally, the blindness and partial insanity: because of the food that Richard Parker and Pi consume, they both turn temporarily blind. At this point, Pi hears a French accented character who is purely non-vegetarian. I.e. he does not understand Pi’s description of kootu and idli and other vegetarian delights from back home that he sorely missed; instead the French accented voice only understands flesh and blood. Pi thinks it is his delusion. Then he thinks Richard Parker could talk and then he cries. The salt water bringing back his vision, he realises that the French man was indeed a French man, currently butchered by Richard Parker. When Pi reaches land, he is presented as partially insane by the author (fictitious). Yet, he later seems to mellow down, even as he keeps his family a secret from the author (fictitious). Pi, then, becomes a box, closing himself and his current life within, opening out to only what is necessary. This is to some extent akin to Coleridge’s ancient mariner who boxes in his own life, only living the story of the killing of the albatross. Though Colridge’s protagonist does not settle down to get a family (for his deeds are reaped of his act of killing), Pi seems to lead a sombre, normal life haunted by the ghost of a past which becomes his only narrative. He almost becomes caged by his sea-story (in the repetition to the officials, the author (fictitious) and the story which goes back to Mr. Adirubaswamy, a friend of his father’s).
The Life of Pi attains its element of high beauty only because of it narrative style. The plot is captivating and makes the reading a fast-paced and exciting one, but it is the manner in which the author (fictitious) and the grown-up Pi tell their stories- in the language, the small surprises that are sprung on their reader, and the back and forth movement of the story(ies)- that hold the reader transfixed to the words on the page. It is a lovely read and maybe, just maybe, the movie would do it justice!