{Contender or Pretender: Volume 2} “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel (2001)

Contender or Pretender: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

Why this book could be a contender: Martel has written a 354-page, 100-chapter book that takes two of the defining themes of Canadian identity – bilingualism and immigration to Canada – and connects them to a third: multiculturalism. The novel is written with multiple narrative techniques (author comments, main character confessional, official interview) to clue the reader in to multiple ways of reading the story. A novel that can give insight into the necessity of bilingualism, the hardships and successes of those who immigrate to this land, and the value, difficulties, and effect of multiculturalism on Canada is exactly the kind of scope a major Canadian novel should have.

Examination from close reading: Martel begins with a short “Author’s Note” of seven pages before he introduces the novel’s main character. The “Author’s Note,” however, is more prologue and explanation of the creation of this book than note. The unnamed author is actually a character in the story (the chronicler of Pi Patel), so it appears that Martel is using a motif of tricking the reader in the guise of an expository background story. The word “bamboozle” stands out as the only non-italicized word at the bottom of the first page of the “Author’s Note” (p.v), and in case we still feel like giving him the benefit of the doubt, he follows that up with “bamboozle” again and “bamboozelment” in italics on the next page (p.vi).

His first sentence is “This book was born as I was hungry” (p.v). This is the kind of sentence that makes me suspicious about the nature and purpose of his writing of this book. I am suspicious that this is a paradoxically revealing and misleading sentence. I am suspicious that he is telling us what Life of Pi is about in a succinct manner before he overexplains it to make us lost in a sea of plots. For example, in these first seven pages, Martel uses the pronouns “I” 76 times (71 about himself), “me” 17 times (16 times about himself), “my” 18 times, and “mine” twice. That’s 87 references to himself and 20 references to what’s his. Perhaps his original title was Life of I.

Wait a second. It was! Yann Martel’s first novel was titled Self (1996), a fictional autobiography or bildungsroman of a young writer’s birth, growth and literal-figurative gender transformation as he paradoxically tries to figure out his national and linguistic identity though cosmopolitan and multilingual affiliations – a metaphor for becoming Canadian. Self is a multilingual novel, written mostly in English but juxtaposing English, French, and Spanish at times in parallel columns. There are also passages in Czech, German and Hungarian, depending on whom he remembers while growing up and hanging out with. The “plot” follows the young male writer from his birth, his descriptions of his parents, his early schooling and residences, his experimental writings, his enduring of the deaths of his parents, his graduation from a pseudo-Catholic high school, his leaving Montreal to travel to Portugal, his eating of nothing but sweet potatoes for two weeks, and then his waking up one morning on his 18th birthday to discover that instead of becoming a man, he has amnesia and the only things he knows is that he is thinking in English and that he is a woman. “My identity was tied to the English language” (Self 107). Interspersed are the writer-character’s thoughts about ambition, religion, imagination, sex, politics, and happiness.

This reminded me of a technique first used by Virginia Woolf in her novel Orlando (1928), where the main character is a poet who travels through time and makes satirical and political comments about English culture and literature. The poet changes genders from male to female and lives for centuries, and in the process meets the key figures of English literary history. Woolf’s novel begins in 1600 and ends in 1928, a year when voting rights for women was recognized for the first time. That’s 328 years.

The main character in Self, mirroring Martel, is the child of Canadian diplomats and a writer achieving recognition at a young age. It is set partly in Peterborough, Ontario, where Martel was a student at Trent University. It also partially takes place in Montreal and deals with religious faith and the absence of belief. A major theme is the relationship between religion and evil: “It made me think about how people live with evil. What interested me in religion is its claim to go beyond the bounds of human existence,” said Martel, in “A Life as simple as Pi,” The Telegraph (Oct 30, 2002).

In the first two paragraphs of his “Author’s Note” in Life of Pi, the Author character writes about how poorly his first novel sold. “This book was born as I was hungry” he writes, and we understand that Self made him hungry. But was he thirsty as well? Yes, of course he was. He just hasn’t gotten to it yet in the “Author’s Note” (that’s in Part Two on p.147). In that first novel he was a traveling male writer who became a female and moved away from Montreal. That novel had awful sales. How should he follow that up if he wants the opposite result? Perhaps by being a traveling male reader who becomes an animal and moves to Toronto? That sentence I just wrote, yes, the previous sentence to the one you’re reading right now, succinctly covers about 318 pages (or 94 of the 100 chapters) of Life of Pi.

The “plot” of “Part One: Toronto and Pondicherry,” follows the young male reader from his naming (figurative baptism), his descriptions of his parents, his early schooling, his re-naming of himself (figurative re-baptism), his experiments with three religions (including a literal baptism), his thoughts on atheism and animals, a short list of English literature that he’s read (including a famous Indian author) of which Martel will be borrowing from in Part Two, and a life-changing trip to Canada – what city sounds like a cartoon animal? Winnipeg? Yes, that’s where they should move to – during which he will have to endure the deaths of his parents, which is where Part Two begins. Interspersed are the author-character’s comments and conversations about religion and happiness with the adult version of the main character, presently living in Toronto.

“Not that I’m a travel writer. I’m not interested in writing about India, for example – Indian writers will write about India. It’s not fear of voice appropriation, it’s because it’s already complicated enough being Canadian – I don’t want even to begin imagining being Indian,” said Martel in “The author as explorer,” Toronto Star (May 18, 1996).

So maybe he’s not writing about India. So maybe Life of Pi is really about Canada – a big country with a smaller Francophone culture surrounded by a bigger Anglophone culture. That sounds like what he describes Pondicherry as in this book. Okay. Maybe I’m judging him too quickly. Maybe it’s a statement about the suffocating nature of les Anglais on les Québécois. Perhaps it might have something to do with the sometimes positive, sometimes uneasy alliance of francophone and anglophone cultures in New Brunswick. If this book set in India is really about Canada, then the East Indians might also represent the Indigenous peoples of Canada, and the multiple religions that Pi accepts might be a criticism of forced conversion and residential school education. Those sound like much more important things to write about than one’s self.

Martel changes his direction next and continent (Europe), as he then mentions writing about “Portugal in 1939” four times (p.v, p.xi) in the “Author’s Note” and “Portugal” on its own two other times (p.vi). Perhaps this is a political reference to the Iberian pact of 1939 where Portugal and Spain (under dicta-tiger Franco) promised to respect and protect each other’s territory and to enter into no pact or secondary alliance involving aggression against the other. Portugal was dependent on foreign trade in 1939 and lacked raw materials and the large internal market which would have allowed it to pursue a strategy of economic self-sufficiency. At the time, Spain was in the midst of the final stages of its Civil War. In order to avoid being swallowed up by the Soviet Union, Portuguese President Antonio de Oliveira Salazar set out to win General Francisco Franco’s friendship and gratitude by providing diplomatic, military, and economic help to Portugal in order to ensure Franco’s victory. Salazar persuaded the victorious Franco to adhere to a policy of neutrality or at least non-belligerence. In effect, Salazar became friends with a scarier leader to avoid the greater threats of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Perhaps Martel is foreshadowing the Calvin and Hobbes-type psychotic relationship we will be reading about in Part Two.

Martel then tells us how good his story is as if he were role-playing the critic: “Your theme is good, as are your sentences. Your characters are so ruddy with life they practically need birth certificates. The plot you’ve mapped out for them is grand, simple and gripping. You’ve done your research, gathering the facts – historical, social, climatic, culinary – that will give your story its feel of authenticity. The dialogue zips along, crackling with tension. The descriptions burst with colour, contrast and telling detail. Really, your story can only be great” (p.vi-vii). Really? So this novel is already as good, as great, and as canonical as some of the greatest novels of all time? Tolstoy’s War and Peace for example? Of course, Martel then mentions Tolstoy in a self-deprecating tone (p.vii), mirroring Tolstoy’s own assertion that War and Peace was “not a novel, even less is it an epic poem, and still less a historical chronicle” (Russian Archive, 1868). Tolstoy uses passages in French alongside Russian in his narrative and some sections are more akin to philosophical discussions than narrating plot. War and Peace is more of an inquiry into what makes us human, along the lines of Herodotus’ The Histories.

So Life of Pi isn’t a novel, or isn’t just a novel. It’s fiction and meta-fiction. It’s mega-fiction. Martel then gives a partially obscured list of what he will be writing about in the next 318 pages of this book: “doctor … magic and miracle … accident …eyes fixed … crying and moaning …victims …law … mishap …confess … philosophy … meaning …tragedy … Kierkegaard [“churchyard”/philosopher] …bruised truth” (p.vii) [character, theme, plot, symbol, plot, character, theme,  plot, structure, theme, theme, plot, theme, structure].

Well, all that sounds okay, but how can this be a novel that is as good as Tolstoy, I ask? Martel answers through an elderly Indian character: “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” (p.viii). Well, that doesn’t just sound like a great book. That sounds like a holy book. Like a canonical text. “But I [am] suspicious” (p.viii). “You must pay proper attention” (p.ix), says the elderly Indian storyteller telling a story to the author-character storyteller. I understand what that means. Be a careful reader. Don’t be bamboozled by an urban legend. That’s the advice we receive from this friend of a friend. No problem.

The Indian storyteller then introduces two symbolic places in the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens: Roseville (where vegans might like to live) and Zootown (where carnivores will eat each other) – two extreme forms of existence through diet. Perhaps they also symbolize secular humanism and religious conflict, or peace and war. Perhaps they symbolize heaven and hell. Perhaps they also foreshadow some point-of-no-return life decisions the main character will have to make. Perhaps I’m misreading. But he does introduce them here only to state they are two stops and then says nothing more about them.

His statements of gratitude are also suspicious. He thanks his main character first of all “and I hope that my telling of his tale does not disappoint him” (p.x). He thanks his source, the friend-of-a-friend storyteller. He thanks three fictional Japanese characters (Mr. Kazuhiko Oda, Mr. Hiroshi Watanabe, and especially Mr. Tomohiro Okamoto) with symbolic names (respectively, “Peaceful Man of Unity,” “Tolerant or Waiting by the Ferryside,” and “Wise Friend to Truth” or “Philosopher”) that last of which we will encounter in Part Three when Martel re-writes his 318 previous pages in a more non-fictional, non-figurative, non-metaphorical, and perhaps he would say, non-artistic manner of 33 pages.

Actually, my repetition of the number of pages he has written in Parts One and Two is a bit misleading, if not a misreading. In my edition, pages 2, 104, and 106 are blank. That’s a total of 315 pages. Not quite 314, but maybe a different edition would fix that problem for him. So that would mean he begins with 7 pages, lives out 314 or 315 pages, and is resurrected in 33 pages.

The most curious thank you in the “Author’s Note” is to Moacyr Scliar “for the spark of life” (p.x) – or inspiration – for this book. Scliar was a Brazilian writer and physician best known outside Brazil for his 1981 novel Max and the Cats (Max e os Felinos), the story of a young German man who flees Berlin after he comes to the attention of the Nazis for having had an affair with a married woman. Making his way to Brazil, his ship sinks, and he finds himself alone in a dinghy with a jaguar who had been travelling in the hold. Martel’s story had enough similarities to Scliar’s novel that he wrote an essay for Powell’s City of Books (in effect, a promotional platform), stating categorically that he had not even read Scliar’s book, but only a review of it by John Updike, and that’s why he credits Scliar for the inspiration.

In that essay, “How I Wrote Life of Pi,” seemingly written as a defense against allegations of plagiarism, Martel uses a three-part structure (prefaced by a paragraph outlining the three main points of his essay) to let the reader know that it was influence, inspiration, and hard work that resulted in Life of Pi. He mentions reading a review of John Updike (perhaps it was a review on John Updike’s Brazil (1994) where the main characters actually become each other) on Scliar’s Max and the Cats and how “[Updike’s] review — one of those that makes you suspicious by being mostly descriptive, without critical teeth, as if the reviewer were holding back — oozed indifference.” But he was intrigued with the premise and imagined using it to write a better novel – the same kind of influential experience he’d had with Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963). He also describes being inspired by being in India. Influence. Inspiration. India. All “I” words.

A New York Times article “Tiger in a Lifeboat, Panther in a Lifeboat” (Nov 6, 2002) calls him out for making up the review he read by Updike. When pressed for a response, his publicist claimed, “Because he doesn’t live in New York, he confused the two and misremembered where he read the review.” Really? He wrote an essay in the exact same style as his novel and published it on a book store’s promotional website and he misremembered an important detail at the beginning of it, which, ironically, would directly contradict the last point of his essay, the hard work of research he claims he had to undertake. I am very suspicious that all of this controversy was planned from the beginning of the “Author’s Note.”

When confronted by another reporter in an interview for The Guardian (“May Richard Parker be always at your side,” 26 Nov 2002) about The New York Times publicly debunking his Powell’s article, Martel became almost hostile and replied, “‘Debunked?’ ‘Fatal misstatements?’ What are you, some weirdo conspiracy theorist? Let me debunk your stupid questions and their many fatal misstatements … And what’s this about me ‘publicly and falsely ridiculing’ the Scliar novel? I suggest you go back to school and learn how to read … In the essay and in every interview I’ve done, print, radio and television, I’ve mentioned where I got my premise. It was public knowledge for months before the Brazilian press decided to turn it into a scandal.”

It sounds like he was waiting for the Brazilian press for some international sales. I only suggest all of this was planned and he was patiently waiting for the slow Brazilian scandal-loving press to get involved, because in Chapter 1 of Life of Pi, Martel actually spends three pages describing the Brazilian three-toed sloth. “How does it survive, you might ask. Precisely by being so slow. Sleepiness and slothfulness keep it out of harm’s way, away from the notice of jaguars” (p.4).

Martel appropriates many ideas from other authors (an extensive – if not exhaustive – list can be found at the end of this review), but chief among them are Moacyr Scliar’s Max and the Cats (1981), Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), R. K. Narayan’s A Tiger for Malgudi (1983), Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963), Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (1985-95).

Part One is also filled with puns. The main character’s name is Piscine Molitor Patel. That’s a strange name. He outlines a couple of puns about the name here for us in case we aren’t paying enough attention. Piscine, Pissing, P. Singh. Funny. Piscine is Pool which is like Pond as in Pondicherry as in the Red Sea. Pissing is how animals establish territorial boundaries. P. Singh was the biographer of R.K. Narayan, who wrote A Tiger for Malgudi. Martel also puns on the amount of days (227) Pi is at sea. 22/7 = 3.1428571. I wonder if “Piscine Molitor Patel” is an anagram as well. “Martel Is Pencil Pi Too.” That sounds too easy. How about “I, Martel, Open Stoic Lip” Or “Neopolitic Martel Pis?” Or “Martel Tel I Pis-Poo Inc.” Now I’m paying too much attention.

“Part Two: The Pacific Ocean” is the basic survive-and-rebirth plot with many facts and details to distract and entertain the reader. That is the point of the book. Being able to attract readers is the be-all and end-all of writing. The Alpha and the Omega for Martel. Martel cannot survive as a writer on just a few readers just as Pi cannot survive in the Pacific Ocean on rarely consumed fish. For Pi, a miracle happens and the fish actually come to him in the form of flying fish (p.200-08, 245-7). For Martel, a miracle happens and readers actually come to him after he wins the Man-Booker Prize.

Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (1967) is worth mentioning here and his postmodernist reader-response theory which views the reader as an active agent who imparts real existence to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Fish claims Paradise Lost is a poem about how its readers became fallen readers (attracted to the devil and fed up with God’s/good rules) and Milton intentionally misleads the reader into thinking the character of Satan is the sympathetic hero of the work instead of Adam (Man). His poem proves itself every time we enjoy reading Satan described with the romance of the rebel. If fish and fishing are metaphors for readers and catching them in Life of Pi, then flying fish are the readers actively buying Martel’s book and imparting the real meaning of survival for Martel.

The most curious and familiar section of Part Two (for anyone who was born or has lived in Toronto, that is) is in Chapter 92 when Pi lands on the mysterious island of algae where meerkats live, eat dead fish, and avoid acid. “I looked down. I was both satisfied and disappointed with what I saw. The island had no soil. Not that the trees stood in water. Rather, they stood in what appeared to be a dense mass of vegetation, as sparkling green as the leaves. Who had ever heard of land with no soil? With trees growing out of pure vegetation? I felt satisfaction because such a geology confirmed that I was right, that this island was a chimera, a play of the mind” (p.285).

Originally, the word “Toronto” referred to a channel of water through which Lake Simcoe discharges into Lake Couchiching. This narrows was styled tkaronto by the Mohawk, meaning “where there are trees standing in the water” or “harbour.” Toronto is the centre of the Canadian Publishing Universe. Does he make another pun about the island having no soil and the city having no soul? “‘Look for green,’ said the survival manual. Well, this was green. In fact, it was chlorophyll heaven. A green to outshine food colouring and flashing neon lights. A green to get drunk on” (p.286). Toronto is also the centre of the Canadian Financial Universe. Lots of people have money here to buy things like beer and books.

In the section under “Hard Work” in his essay “How I wrote Life of Pi,” Martel writes, “I chose meerkats because I wanted a small ferret-like creature without the connotations that ferrets have. I wanted a neutral animal upon which I could paint a personality of my choice. Also, meerkats rhymed somewhat with mirage and meekness.” In Life of Pi, he writes, “We didn’t have any meerkats in our zoo. But I had read about them. They were in the books and in the literature” (p.294). As far as I am aware, the only time a meerkat had ever been portrayed in “books and in the literature” was as a cartoon animal in Disney’s The Lion King (1994) in the form of Timon, a wise-cracking and self-absorbed meerkat who is known for claiming his warthog friend Pumbaa’s ideas as his own.

“It was as the meerkats were hauling the fish out of the pond, displaying real feats of teamwork, that I noticed something curious: every fish, without exception, was already dead. Freshly dead. The meerkats were bringing ashore dead fish they had not killed” (p.297). Martel is criticizing critics here, as they get read by people who want to find out about what books are good to read, not by people who like reading critics as writers themselves.

“The trees were carnivorous too, but at a much lower level of acidity … I looked around at the algae. Bitterness welled up in me. The radiant promise it offered during the day was replaced in my heart by all the treachery it delivered at night. I muttered, ‘Nothing but teeth left! TEETH!'” (p.313). This sounds suspiciously like his experience of having his work criticized by people who didn’t understand him. So meek critics in Toronto have no teeth? Martel doesn’t want critics anyway. He wants readers.

In “Part Three: Benito Juarez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico,” we have the reappearance of the author character giving us hints about misreadings and re-phrasings before the official interview with Pi occurs. As a side note, Benito Juárez García was of Zapotec (indigenous peoples) origin who served as the president of Mexico for five terms between 1858 and 1872. A great number of cities, towns, streets, institutions (such as hospitals), and other things are named after Benito Juárez, including Mexico City International Airport, better known in Mexico by its first official name Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez, but the hospital in Tomatlan is not named after him. Benito Juárez is remembered as being a progressive reformer dedicated to democracy, equal rights for his nation’s indigenous peoples, and his antipathy toward organized religion, especially the Catholic Church (motivated by his adherence to Freemasonry). This is clearly seen in the Ley Juárez (Juárez Law) of 1855, which declared all citizens equal before the law and severely restricted the privileges of the Catholic Church.

In Part Three, we also learn that Mr. Pi Patel’s case file number is 250663 (p.323). Yann Martel’s birth date is 25 June, 1963. He has, in effect, produced his birth certificate. This is the last proof needed that this book is about, and has always been about, Yann Martel. Or, more precisely, creating a readership for Martel so he will never go hungry again. “If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams” (p.xi) was the last sentence of his preface, or “Author’s Note.” Let me offer a possible translation: If readers do not read Yann Martel then they are indeed stupid. “I have a story that will make you believe in God (p. viii).” Another possible translation: Martel has a book that will convert you into a fan and you will buy all of his subsequent books, now and forever, amen.

Judgment: As mentioned before,  “Mr. Patel” is an anagram for “P. Martel.”  The P.  could be for pseudonym. It could stand for a number of things connected to where Martel grew up: Portugal, Paris (France), Port Hope, and Peterborough. It could stand for philosophy, his major at Trent University. Martel dedicates this book to his parents and his brother. His mother’s maiden name was Peronne. So, Life of Pi, could be translated as Life of Yann or The Stories Yann Read During his Life and then Mixed Together so You Can Like Him. As mentioned above, he’s been accused of plagiarism before. That’s another p-word. I’ve used a lot of p-words in this review. For me, the P stands for pseudo. Not pseudonym. Just pseudo. From the Greek for “pretender.”

For your reading pleasure, this is a list of all the books (or at least as many as I could detect) that are alluded to, directly mentioned, or heavily mirrored, in Life of Pi. I do not include scientific theories, kabbalistic, syncretic, and political historical figures, or psychological theorists, which are also alluded to or heavily appropriated in this book. The list below reads like his complete education in literary, religious, and philosophical texts from high school and university.

Author’s Note Part One Part Two Part Three
Yann Martel’s, Self (1996) Nino Ricci, Lives of the Saints (1990) Norman Mailer, A Fire on the Moon (1969) John Hawkes, The Cannibal (1949)
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869) Alban Butler, Lives of the Saints (1756) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990)
Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (1843) Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (1843) Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes
Moacyr Scliar, Max and the Cats (1981) Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (1967) Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days (1873) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536/1541)
Desmond Morris, The Human Zoo (1969) Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak (1883) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
  The New Testament Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist (1988)  
  The Old Testament Plato, The Republic (c.388 BC)  
  The Koran Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (1996)  
  Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859) Akong Tulku Rinpoche, Taming the Tiger: Tibetan Teachings on Right Conduct, Mindfulness, and Universal Compassion (1995)  
  Heini Hediger, Wild Animals in Captivity (1942/1950) Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (1967)  
  The Mahabharata Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927)  
  Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (1987) Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)  
  William Blake, Songs of Experience (1794) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (1943)  
  Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book (1894) Eugene Ionesco, Rhinoceros (1959)  
  Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883) Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938)  
  Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1885) Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes (1886-1902) Maria Dermout, The Ten Thousand Things (1955)  
  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World (1912) Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (1871-1922)  
  R. K. Narayan, A Tiger for Malgudi (1983) Samuel Beckett, Endgame (1957)  
  Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719) Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1955/1970)  
  Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (1427) Jose Saramago, Blindness (1995)  
    Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island (1874)  
    Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870)