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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel


In this review of Life of Pi, I argue that this is a magical tale which rediscovers the power of the child's fairy-story. In the process it makes even the atheist, literary critical reader want to believe in God, and want to enjoy the story in its own way, rather than seeking to (over)interpret it.


Life of Pi is intended, so Martel tells us, to make the reader believe in God. This bold, apparently evangelical, premise locates it on a dangerous moral high ground. D.H. Lawrence warned against using the novel as a forum for the author to assert his own moral or religious belief:

Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality. (D.H. Lawrence, "Morality and the Novel")

Aesthetically, the fiction which reveals a truth by explicit sermonising rather than as a natural conclusion drawn from the relationships and events it presents, is displeasing, even "immoral." Indeed, Martel's statement is likely to have the opposite effect on his reader, provoking a determined counter-reaction not to succumb to a didactic religious agenda. Surely enough, Life of Pi fails to meet its ambition. As he travels through its pages, apparently on the Damascun road to enlightenment, the reader will not, atheist or already committed follower, experience some major revelation to the spirit, coming to, or restoring, a belief in God. Nor, despite Martel's explicit but deceptive statement, is he intended to. Instead, Life of Pi achieves something more quietly spectacular: it makes the reader want to believe in God. Martel gives the reader the democratic choice: the desire to believe rather than the belief itself. We do not have to agree with the ideology Martel delivers, but we can support to the full the way he says it, for Martel inspires the reader's desire by invoking the spirit of the fairy tale - the simple narrative which may reveal virtues and ethics, yet which is primarily concerned with entertaining the reader (or listener, as young children often are of such stories) in magical ways which powerfully invoke the active imagination.

"He reawakens the central power of the story as yarn and legend, as the entertaining narrative told round the camp fire and handed between generations, designed to pass the night hours with captivating drama rather than to deliver political analyses on contemporary society."
Martel insures his novel against critics who might insist on penetrative analysis of text at a political rather than emotional level. He reawakens the central power of the story as yarn and legend, as the entertaining narrative told round the camp fire and handed between generations, designed to pass the night hours with captivating drama rather than to deliver didactic analyses on contemporary society. Life of Pi's printed words have the loud echoes of orality as the text is framed by acts of speech, hearing and translation. In the initial pages, Martel assumes an italicised guise, focusing on the fact that the narrative to follow is one he has heard coincidentally, not deliberately created. He is the eventual author of a story which is not his own but which belongs to Pi, its primary teller; Martel's task is one of translation, not creation, interpretation or even alteration. Likewise, at the close, the child Pi relates his narrative again to two foreign interviewers, who record his words - and their own naive, uncomprehending interpretation of them - on a dictaphone with vicious electronic permanence. The text we read is a falsely fossilised record of a story which is, in its vocal form, endlessly fluid, subject to change and amendments to increase its interest for a captivated audience. In normal circumstances such self-consciousness about the literary act might challenge the reader, forcing him into noting the multiple ways and biases with which a single event can be portrayed by a writer, to question the integrity and believability of the narrative, to analyse the text itself as an artefact rather than what that text says. Yet in this instance the challenge is to avoid doing this, and thus to be unlike the pessimistic and dully factual insurance brokers who interrogate Pi at the end. We must lower our critical consciousness, becoming passive recipients of an emotionally pleasing narrative, unquestioning of its real authenticity.

Indeed, one of central metaphors of the novel, the name of the hero Pi, establishes these two alternative modes of reaction: the rational and the aesthetic. 'Pi' is an irritating and unique number for the mathematician who, above all other academics, desires certainty and factuality. It is an infinitely long number, fascinating for its infinite randomness yet all the more frustrating because it is the product of a simple ratio of the circle; it is produced by a single logical equation, yet the result is uncontainable. The novel functions in line with this paradox. As divisible into beginning (Martel's italicised voice), middle (the main story) and end (the Japanese questioners) as a circle is by its radius, the novel occupies too perfectly 100 chapters. Yet the miraculous outcomes of this definite structure - a small boat, an Indian boy, a 450-pound Bengal tiger and a meeting with a Frenchman in the middle of a vast ocean - defy explanation, logic, reality. This is magic realism in its most subversive form because it contains the most uncanny events produced from the most obviously conventional means of comprehension: language, publishing, a trustworthy author in control of his narrative.

Martel takes different modes of discourse and genre, mutates their characteristics and mixes together them between a single set of covers. Like India, which is a point of collision of different cultures and religions, and of which Pi (who derives different benefits from the three religions he follows simultaneously) is the most vivid embodiment, the book holds together styles from different departments of the library. In the opening chapters of Pi's story, he makes an empathic analysis of zoology and animal psychology which seems to owe something to Gerald Durrell. Taking common sense as its index, Martel/Pi explains how creatures feel and thus logically why tigers can be tamed by man and why wild creatures are content to stay in zoos. It is remarkable because it makes the reader see animals in a different way, as emotional bodies, rather as simply sharp-clawed vehicles for the carrying out of violent primal instincts. But if emotional animals (who also, unhappily, get seasick) are remarkable because the reader has not thought of them in such terms before, is this any more astonishing than the discovery of an uncharted, meat-eating island inhabited solely by meerkats in the middle of the ocean? Might it simply be that, just as we haven't thought about animals as possessing emotional soul, we haven't yet opened our minds to the possibility of discovering of a new natural wonder? Darwinian theory is placed against humanistic (or in this case animalistic) empathy. In this island scene, an incident which occurs crucially just as the novel seems to be becoming - dare one say this about a story about a child sharing a boat with a Bengal tiger? - repetitive and conventional, the Eden myth is reconfigured in a chilling biological reversal where trees consume men. The natural environment is fluid and adaptable and Man is anything but in perfect control or understanding of it, despite his presumptuous arrogance.

"The castaway narrative exposes man in his most basic state as the descendant of monkeys, concerned with existence rather than production, his superiority one of intellect rather than technology."
Martel's choice of the narrative of the lone survivor - and one of the earliest novels, Robinson Crusoe, comes under this rubric - as his underlying structural guide is interesting. The castaway narrative exposes man in his most basic state as the descendant of monkeys, concerned with existence rather than production, his superiority one of intellect rather than technology. Computers, cars, household appliances detach us from our organic existence, making us seem closer to machines than mammals on the evolutionary scale. The castaway loses all such objects. He may create new ones, but in the process we are reminded that it is the thought processes which come first, and their speed and complexity which marks us out from animals, not the tools we use and which are the by-products of that psychology. In Robinson Crusoe, just as Crusoe seems to have built and adapted to his new environment there is an earthquake. His house collapses- his technology fails - but in the process his belief in God (surely one of the most complex, because so abstract, of all thoughts) is awakened. Likewise as Pi's boat rusts, as his clothes decay, as his survival rations run out, Pi becomes increasingly sensitive to the nature embodied in the tiger, more alert to his own mental state, more aware of what fundamentally distinguishes human from beast. The castaway's narrative, whilst thoroughly exciting for the comparative heroism of its central character - we cannot help but question, when reading such tales, 'would I have coped as well in his position?' - also examines with scientific cleanness the essential qualities of being of the human species, because it happens away from crowds of other people and the clutter of the machinery of daily life.

This sense of stripping bare is why the novel works so well. Without displaying explicitly the hallmarks of the modern novel - metafictional self-reference; the need to be engaged and politically 'relevant'; the need to explain and educate as well as simply to tell - the central story of Pi's survival is purely heroic, fascinating, thrilling and unusual. When Martel is self-conscious, noting the nature of the text as a linguistic act itself rather than focusing on what it tells, this is only to highlight the difference between alternative modes of reception, that of the analytical literary critic sat at his office computer and that of the child listening to his mother at night. The castaway narrative balances elementary yet dramatic things happening (days passing, fish caught, rescue ships encountered) with moral self-discovery. Yet Martel's sense of humour, the constant revelations that things are not what they appear (I will not spoil the joke here, but who is Richard Parker?) means that we are entertained unconscious of what of human psychology is being exposed in the process. If entertainment is the primary ambition of the story and the primary desire of its reader, in the binary challenge with which Martel closes - to have an entertaining story or a factual story, to have a god whose presence can't be measured or to have a world ordered by rational science - there is only one positive conclusion.

And I am aware that, in writing the above, I must therefore live upon the latter pole, seeking to explain rather than to observe, to understand rather than to accept, to dig deep for meaning rather than to lie back for pleasure. Yet even for me, though wearing a starch literary critical uniform, and as a committed atheist, the book's essential power and paradox remains: a story which is singularly irrational and unbelievable, in which I want desperately, irrationally, to believe.

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This page was published on June 15, 2008 | Keywords: Life of Pi, Yann Martel, religion, god

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