Okay, so I was completely immersed in The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, that is, the life of Piscine Molitor Patel, until I drifted into ‘Part Three: Benito Judrez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico’. To say this story-or, shall I say, stories-is a modern day epic is not a complete reach, however the ending (Part Three) was, paradoxically, arid in comparison to the supple, densely saturated, life-sustaining narrative. This is where Martel failed to put this eloquently crafted novel in the neighborhood of great, must-read literature. For nearly 286 pages I was ready to baptize Pi (I really have no authority to do this other than being an avid reader of a plethora of literature, both modern and classic) as a modern day Odysseus.
If we were to investigate this novel for epic characteristics they would be sparse. For example, in its purest artistic form The Life of Pi is a novel not a poem, there is figurative language used but it would be a stretch to label similes as extended or epic, there is a natural beginning but, I suppose arguable, the novel does not begin in medias res, and there is no invocation of a Muse.
Upon further investigation we do find echoes of epic characteristics. The novel addresses a serious topic, one of self-discovery and survival under the weight of extreme natural forces and battles of wit with varying species. Pi’s family-his father, mother, brother, and Pi-are pushed out of India due to a concern over politics-or, as in epics, the fate of their nation, and pulled to Canada. The novel holds a large, expansive setting from India, to the middle of the Pacific ocean, to Mexico, and finally Canada. In Homer’s epics, we are bombarded with the intervention of gods and goddesses. Certainly, Pi is helped by his belief in God and his practicing of three separate faiths. Depending upon the impression of heroic qualities and based on which of Pi’s stories is most reliable, one might argue that Piscine Molitor Patel is a larger than life hero.
I was hooked by the lure of spirituality. Believing in one God while practicing Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity made sense.
A wave of emotions washed over me as I read. First, when Pi’s father decided to shut down the family zoo and move out of India, next as I realized Pi’s father, mother, and brother drowned as the Tsimtsum sank to the depths of the Pacific ocean, then as Pi struggled to survive as he drifted aimlessly on the ocean in a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger as his first-mate, and, finally, his miraculous rescue, on the shores of Mexico, when he barely had strength to stand on his own two feet, struggling to even trust the ground underneath him.
Early on Pi claims this story is one that will make you believe in God. The story comes full circle, the circumference made up of a long voyage, the radius of struggle after struggle on the Pacific, and the diameter of a spiritual connection that aided in Pi’s survival. At the end, when he asks the Japanese interviewers whether they liked his story with or without animals, Mr. Okamoto replied as Mr. Chiba agreed, ”The story with animals is the better story.” Pi responds, “And so it goes with God.”
Did this story make me believe in God? No more than I already do. Was this story full of symbolism of human nature and our pursuit of understanding our purpose? Yes, absolutely. Is Pi a modern day Odysseus? Maybe, but, because of an ending that leads to more confusion, disillusionment, and a white-washing of the first 300 pages, Yann Martel is not a modern day Homer, not that he wants to be. He has hit upon something significant in The Life of Pi. Namely, the possibility of a peaceful coexistence of three faiths based on enduring, sustaining, unconditional love. If nothing else, that is worthwhile and valuable in our age.