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Floating on Faith

LIFE OF PI: A Novel, By Yann Martel, Harcourt: 336 pp., $25

June 16, 2002|FRANCIE LIN | Francie Lin is the associate editor of The Threepenny Review.

Yann Martel's novel "Life of Pi" is the literary version of a large, friendly dog; hardly has it committed some mild offense than it rebounds with such enthusiasm, impishness and charm that one promptly forgives it. The book concerns the life of Piscine Molitor Patel (self-christened Pi), an Indian boy growing up in Pondicherry in the 1970s. Pi's father is the director of the zoo at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden, and the family lives within the idyllic, hothouse peace of the zoo grounds until at last, in 1977, the political situation in India forces them to sell off their animals and move to Canada. On their way to Toronto, their ship--a Japanese cargo ship carrying, among other things, a Bengal tiger from the Pondicherry zoo--sinks, and all members of the Patel family, excluding Pi, are lost at sea.

A pocket summary of "Life of Pi" doesn't quite do the book justice, however, because despite its constant episodes of tragedy and suffering, the story is written with a lightness and humor that gives it the quality of a fairy tale. Consider the landscape of Pi's religious life, for instance, which Martel paints with the gently exaggerated proportions of a fable: "There are three hills within Munnar ... on each stood a Godhouse. The hill on the right ... had a Hindu temple high on its side; the hill in the middle, further away, held up a mosque; while the hill on the left was crowned with a Christian church."

Each mountain has its guru, and in time Pi conquers each, becoming a practicing Catholic, Hindu and Muslim, fending off the disapproval of his priest, his pandit and his imam through the sheer force of his own faith. "Bapu Gandhi said, 'All religions are true.' I just want to love God," he tells his mystified parents, and continues unshaken in his prayers toward Mecca and his intention to be baptized in the Catholic Church.

Occasionally, Martel's wit gets the better of him and turns his prose merely annoying and coy ("Why, Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise," Pi notes upon first seeing a Muslim at prayer. "Hot-weather yoga for Bedouins. Asanas without sweat, heaven without strain"), but these moments are few and far between. This is especially true once Pi, along with the Bengal tiger, becomes stranded at sea on a lifeboat, where both parties survive for 227 days.

At this point, Martel's remarkable gift for storytelling asserts itself, and there one encounters page after page of images and observations riveting in their precision and insight. On lightning: "The water was shot through with what looked like white roots; briefly, a great celestial tree stood in the ocean." On the killing of a dorado: "[It] did a most extraordinary thing as it died: it began to flash all kinds of colors in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death." On time: "I survived because I made a point of forgetting. My story started on a calendar day ... and ended on a calendar day ... but in between there was no calendar ... Time is an illusion that only makes us pant. I survived because I forgot even the very notion of time."

It is a testament to Martel's talent that his narrative never drags despite the fact that the movement of time in "Life of Pi" is almost undetectable. All incidents take place in a kind of vacuum, and in the hands of a lesser craftsman, they would seem scattershot and random. What draws us on is not plot in any chronological sense but rather the profound, infectious sense of wonder that runs the length of the book. "Life's" peculiar, slightly dreamlike cast eventually carries the reader to the last of Pi's trials, a brief sojourn on an island floating, apparently unmoored, in the middle of the sea. In a few short pages, Martel sketches a cankered paradise that, in its quiet horror, rivals the best of dystopian fiction.

Equally haunting is the aftermath of Pi's ordeal, the surprise of which shouldn't be ruined here. Suffice to say that the ending contradicts the statement, made twice in the book's introduction, that "Life of Pi" is "a story to make you believe in God." Like Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," it is instead a story to make you believe in the soul-sustaining power of fiction and its human creators, and in the original power of storytellers like Martel.

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