by Yann Martel
319 pp, Canongate
Pi’s story takes us on an extraordinary journey across the Pacific Ocean on a 26 foot long and 8 foot wide lifeboat, with some uncalled for companions. A voyage that lasts 227 days (227 -> 22/7 = 3.14 = π = Pi. Not a coincidence!) A journey that brings out, in the “harmless boy, bookish and religious”, a violent and fierce instinct to survive. Pi himself confides that he “descended to a level of savagery [he] never imagined possible”.
And Martel leaves the reader with a mystery to solve. Not a crime sort of mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.
The narrative opens with a semi-fictional author’s note where Martel gets acquainted with an elderly Indian man whilst drinking at a coffee shop in India. The factual parts are mostly related to Martel’s lack of success with his previous publications. The rest is mostly fiction. The fictitious Indian man tells Martel that he has “a story that will make … [him] believe in God”. And the story is Pi’s life.
Part 1 – Toronto and Pondicherry
It is mid-1970s India. We meet Pi, still a boy, living at his father’s zoo in Pondicherry. Pi describes in detail and uses all of his senses to depict the beauty and magnificence of his surroundings at the zoo. For him, life “is something so bright, loud, weird and delicate as to stupefy the senses”, “it was paradise on earth.”
We can start picturing this boy, sensitive and attentive to the beauty that surrounds him, a gentle and discerning soul.
Also capable of taking control of a situation when necessary. His real name was Piscine Molitor Patel (he was named after a French pool!!!!). When his schoolmates taunt him by calling him “pissing” he decides to shorten his name to Pi, like the π we use when measuring the circumference of a circle. This name change is symbolically important. Bear with me.
From a rectangular fixed space filled with water (the pool), Piscine chooses a name that can measure the circumference of any circular surface, he chooses to become a constant number, a transcendental number. Why? For me it is grounding his connection with God. To further reinforce this idea he later states: “I felt like the centre of a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah.”
Pi’s resolute nature can also be perceived when he (born a Hindu) converts to Christianity and Islam. When the priest, the imam, and the pandit get to know of this triple faith, he is met with anger from the “three wise men”, and derision from his family. His brother Ravi tells him that if he goes “to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday” he needs only “to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of” his life (not such a bad idea).
But Pi is set on continuing this journey. His response when told that he must choose one religion has an innocence and longing about it that leaves god’s men speechless, “I just want to love God”.
And then the family leaves Pondicherry for Canada – and we are forewarned that “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”.
In my next post you will find my thoughts for parts 2 and 3 of Life of Pi, complete with my illustrations.