Life of Pi: A Novel by Yann Martel

“One day a disciple was walking through the marketplace. He overheard a customer say to the butcher, ‘Give me the best piece of meat you have.’ The butcher replied, ‘Everything in my shop is the best. You cannot find any piece of meat that is not the best.’ At these words, the disciple received enlightenment.”
— Zen koan

Reviewing Yann Martel’s astounding Life of Pi is a great deal like trying to solve Zen koans, the ancient conundrums used by Buddhist teachers to facilitate their disciples in reaching a state of enlightenment. The trick of the koan is that there really isn’t one correct solution. There may be many — as many different ones as there are students seeking enlightenment — or there may be none. Who knows. The koans are simply tools to promote non-linear, out-of-the-box type thinking which will, according to the Eastern mystics, lead a seeker to a sense of oneness and harmony with the universe.

Likewise, there is no one answer to the question, “What is Life of Pi about?” There will be probably be as many answers to that question as there are people who read the book. A perusal of online booksellers reveals that this book can be categorized as a survival story, a tall tale, an action piece, a work about human/animal relationships, and a fiction about (1) India, (2) adolescence, (3) zoos and zoology, and (4) the Pacific Ocean, which indicates to this reviewer that book dealers are grasping at anything they can find to define what essentially defies definition. The book is about all of these things — and about none of these things, really.

In Life of Pi, the theories of Darwin and the psychology of Jung happily go hand-in-hand, with Kierkegaard tagging along, too. The unlikely bedfellows of existentialism and faith find common ground here. This is “Survivor” scripted by a philosopher. This is a map of the spiritual realm methodically charted by a scientist. This is Kon Tiki written by a mystic. It’s a devotional book devised by a humanist, a philosophical treatise penned by a pragmatist. An adventure yarn, an allegory and a series of essays on animal behavior, rolled into one — and much more beyond that.

This book goes where few books have gone before, bravely embarking on a metaphysical trek that explores the deepest of life’s mysteries while remaining an exciting Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not style saga of a shipwreck victim’s bizarre exigencies.

Life of Pi is Zen to the nth degree.

— ve question for man is: Is he related to the Infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.”
— Carl Jung

The “story” of Pi Patel, teenaged son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India, is a simple one. Pi is a person dedicated to finding his connection to the Eternal. To everyone’s horror, he systematically samples religions like canapés on a cosmic platter. In addition to his own native Hindu beliefs, Pi adds Christianity and Islam, and happily integrates them into his daily life. He prays to Jesus and Mary, Allah, Krishna and Vishnu. He studies with a priest and a Sufi mystic. He scandalously sets up a conspicuous prayer rug in his parents’ garden so he can face Mecca and conduct his morning Muslim devotions, thereby offending both his family’s nominal Hinduism and hidebound secular humanism.

He does all this without a trace of rebellious spirit, though: he is a bona fide seeker. He acquires layer after layer of diverse spirituality and brilliantly synthesizes it into a personal belief system and devotional life that is breathtaking in its depth and scope. His youthful exploration into comparative religion culminates in a magnificent epiphany of sorts, described in the first part of the book:

I left town and on my way back, at a point where the land was high and I could see the sea to my left and down the road a long ways, I suddenly felt I was in heaven. The spot was no different from when I had passed it not long before, but my way of seeing it had changed. The feeling, a paradoxical mix of pulsing energy and profound peace, was intense and blissful. Whereas before the road, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun all spoke differently to me, now they spoke one language of unity. Tree took account of road, which was aware of air, which was mindful of sea, which shared things with sun. Every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbour, and all was kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the center of a small circle coinciding with the center of a much larger one. Atman had met Allah.

Interspersed with his philosophical and spiritual discourses are Pi’s discussions on zoology, a subject with which he has practical experience, being the offspring of a zookeeper. The reader is treated to casual but astute observations about the habits and psychology of animals in the wild and in captivity. The remarks flow quite charmingly and casually, the sort of informative but easygoing conversation that would be expected from a young man who assists his father with the collection of disparate creatures at the Pondicherry Zoo. The comments seem almost random.

But are they?

Among the many things it is, Life of Pi is a powerful argument for the absolute non-randomness of universe. Every experience has its purpose. Every event has significance. Every scrap of knowledge we’ve acquired is specific for us. As Buddha said, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought.” Everything we need to survive — and not just survive, but thrive and prosper and grow — has already been given to us, if we will but realize it. In the words of a Chinese poem, “Lightning flashes, sparks shower, in one blink of your eyes, you have missed seeing.”

— t a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
— Soren Kierkegaard

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ promised that all seekers shall, indeed, find. That is a frightening assurance, if one gives it a few moments of consideration. The loftier one’s aspirations, the more perilous the search becomes. The answers to ultimate questions come at a very high — and unforeseen — price for the seeker. For Pi, his quest for truth is realized in a harrowing life-or-death experience that comprises the bulk of this novel.

Pi’s family decides to relocate to Canada. His father sells many of the animals from the zoo, but selects some to move with them to Winnipeg by freighter. The ship capsizes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, leaving Pi an orphan, alone on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, and an enormous Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. In short order, the hyena dispatches the zebra, the tiger dispatches the hyena, and for all intents and purposes, Pi appears to be the next item on Richard Parker’s menu.

What happens for the next 227 days at sea is nothing short of amazing. Rejecting the idea of killing the only companion (albeit a dangerous one) he has in the middle of shark-infested waters with waning prospects for rescue, Pi devises ways to care for both his own needs and the tiger’s in an ongoing survival situation of the most dire proportions. In the process, he calls upon everything he has learned, both in a practical sense and a spiritual one, to keep himself and Richard Parker alive against overwhelming odds.

As an adventure story, this is definitely edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting material (in spite of the assurance at the beginning of the novel, “This story has a happy ending”), told so convincingly that disbelief is easily suspended and the reader quickly becomes a boat mate and fellow-sufferer with Pi and the tiger. It brings to mind classic childhood tales such as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Shipwrecked, and Treasure Island — but with a big difference.

— rs between quantum realities are breaking down. Other realities are emerging into our own.”
— Mr. Spock, Star Trek

Pi becomes increasingly convinced that his fate and the tiger’s are inextricably linked, and over the months they are together, he develops an ever-deepening relationship with the animal. What begins as regret at permitting a predator share his lifeboat progresses to an uneasy truce between adversaries, then evolves into a facsimile of a normal zookeeper/zoo specimen interaction. Ultimately, however, in an astounding turnabout, Pi’s mortal enemy literally turns into his salvation, as caring for the tiger becomes for Pi in his darkest moments his very raison d’etre when he can no longer think of a reason to go on. As the Inuit mystic, Igjugarjuk, wrote, “Privation and suffering are the only things that can open the mind of man to those things which are hidden from others.”

In what is probably the most powerful part of the book, Pi experiences a dialogue with Richard Parker, in which reality and fantasy blur, and both terrible truths and frightening questions emerge. Having successfully accomplished a remarkable synthesis in his religious beliefs and practices, Pi now finds himself compelled by circumstances to achieve a spiritual unity with the thing that threatens to kill him as he tends his enemy with the same care he does himself.

This magnificent climax of enlightenment incorporates the core truths of the major religions and modern psychology. Jung’s “Shadow” theme, Christ’s redemptive identification with sinners, Zen’s teaching on the oneness of all living things, and Islam’s practical applications of faith all combine with a stunning ease to offer a truth that is paradoxical and compelling. Pi has overcome external and internal obstacles, and become, in the words of the Bhagadvadgita, a “true devotee”: “He who is beyond excitement and repulsion, who complains not and lusts not for things, who remains unmoved by good and evil fortune, and who has love . . .”

As Pi says in the diary of his long months at sea:

It is pointless to say that this night or that night was the worst in my life. I’ve had so many bad nights to choose from that I’ve made none the champion.

Like the Zen disciple in the opening quote of this review, Pi has transcended the duality of the universal concepts of “good” and “bad,” and learned the amazing lesson that, if nothing is “the worst,” then everything has to be — somehow, mysteriously, cosmically — “the best.”

— eautiful thing that we can experience is the mysterious.”
— Albert Einstein

Pi’s spiritual journey as he searches for meaning in life comprises the real “story” of Pi. Martel weaves the numinous so effortlessly throughout the story that its presence is completely natural and even taken for granted, like the air we breathe. The Divine, with all its many names and many manifestations, in all its many guises and faces, is a major character in the novel, unseen but not unfelt, the invisible Hand, the immovable Force, the First Cause from which all else proceeds. Martel’s facility at handling the spiritual, as if it is the most normal thing in the world, puts the reader, however secular in his or her orientation, totally at ease in a world of mystery and cosmic quests.

The blurb on the dust jacket, quoting a character in the novel, says that this book will make you believe in God. It may. It may not. It may do a whole lot more — make you think, make you question, make you wonder, make you aware. Hopefully, it will rattle the bars of your cage, whatever that “cage” may be.

Life of Pi is full of mystery — so much so, as aforementioned, that both booksellers and book reviewers are somewhat confounded as how to best describe it. It offers no answers, only questions and suggestions, free for the taking but not compulsory by any means. In the best tradition of Zen, the book isn’t trying to be anything, it simply is. And also in the best tradition of Zen, you will get out of it exactly what you need to have right now.

In the best tradition of all good literature, it “shows,” but never “tells.” It joins a small, but significant, body of work that this reviewer would characterize as “mystic fiction” — that is, works that attempt to grapple with the great mysteries and riddles of life in creative and original ways. Some of the books on that shelf might include George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (incorrectly categorized for many years as a children’s fable, which it certainly is not), C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (which has much less to do with outer space as it does with inner space), All Hallow’s Eve and the many other works of the enigmatic English writer Charles Williams who devoted his entire literary career to exploring the relationship between the infinite and finite, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe.

Pi is a timeless book, not falling into the easy categories of allegory or parable, but paradoxical and gently challenging, ambitious in its scope and utterly unique in the current literary scene. It is destined to be become a cult classic, with appeal to Generation X and Y audiences as well as anyone with a philosophical bent, in much the same way as Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Robert Pirsag’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance spoke to seekers of a slightly earlier era.

Its style is elegant but reader-friendly and highly informative on such a vast number of topics that it rather boggles the mind. It offers so many levels of understanding that one can easily pick and choose which floor to get off on. All of them are equally satisfactory — as the Zen sage said, “Everything is best.”

And it is.