“Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu, how good to see you, Richard Parker!” Pi Patel cries when he sees an old friend struggling aboard his lifeboat. Pi’s scrambling of faiths probably won’t win him the affection of any of those religious figures. But then again, in Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi,” our hero Pi (yes, as in 3.14, though his full name is Piscine, the French word for “pool”) has just survived a sinking ship in the Pacific Ocean and witnessed the death of his family. Anyone in his position would be rejoicing to multiple gods at the sight of an old friend — even if this feisty Richard Parker character is actually a 450-pound Bengal tiger.
And anyone facing Pi’s outrageous plight — a skittish zebra, vicious hyena and lumbering orangutan join the castaway party for what ends up being 227 days adrift in the (large) lifeboat — would need the help of all the gods they could summon from the skies. Martel’s “Life of Pi” might sound ridiculous, but by the time Martel throws Pi out to sea, his quirkily magical and often hilarious vision has already taken hold. (After all, this is, as Martel promises us, a “story that will make you believe in God.”) Martel frames the novel as the reminiscences of an older Pi as recorded by the author and intermittently offers his own observations of this curious Indian man. The device works: Martel is so mesmerized by Pi that one can’t help but be enchanted too.
As Pi explains, in his Indian hometown of Pondicherry, the local priest, pandit and imam, as well as Pi’s parents, had many objections to his penchant for collecting religions. But as Pi reasons in his typically idiosyncratic way, “Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.” When he observes how Muslims pray, he says, “Why, Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise … Hot-weather yoga for Bedouins.” His naiveté can be silly, but ultimately it’s an open-mindedness, a way of turning things upside down to see them differently, that serves him well.
Eventually, Pi’s family flees an unstable India, where his father runs a zoo, heading for Canada, and bringing various animals along with them on a Japanese cargo ship. It’s on this voyage that their happy ark mysteriously sinks. Luckily, Pi possesses a nonreligious kind of understanding and faith that allows him to survive on the lifeboat with four animals not known for their compatibility. Pi’s father taught him that the most dangerous creature in the zoo is “the animal as seen through human eyes … It is an animal that is ‘cute,’ ‘friendly,’ ‘loving,’ ‘devoted,’ ‘merry,’ ‘understanding.’”
Yet, while Pi knows about the ferocity of the beasts, he’s also familiar with the quirks of the animal kingdom that often befuddle humans peering in from outside. Sometimes goats can get along just fine with rhinos. A mouse can live with vipers: “While other mice dropped in the terrarium disappeared within two days, this little brown Methusalah built itself a nest, stored the grains we gave it in various hideaways and scampered about in plain sight of the snakes.” Likewise, if handled carefully, a ravenous and terrified Bengal tiger will spare the life of the only human in sight.
Pi’s lost-at-sea story never drags. The slow journey is spiked with fascinating survival scenes, as when Pi and Richard Parker meet a school of flying fish: “They came like a swarm of locusts. It was not only their numbers; there was also something insect-like about the clicking, whirring sound of their wings.” Pi attempts to catch the fish for food; the tiger is better at it: “Many were eaten live and whole, struggling wings beating in his mouth … It was not so much the speed that was impressive as the pure animal confidence, the total absorption in the moment.”
Pi’s story is so extraordinary that when he finally makes it ashore, he offers a comparatively boring version of the tale to two researchers, acknowledging that humans don’t have much of a taste for the miraculous. This played-down version makes Pi’s true tale, thanks to Martel’s beautifully fantastical and spirited rendering, all the more tempting to believe.