“This is a story that will make you believe in God.” A tall order, to be sure, and a risky pivot to hinge a novel on. God, after all, isn’t usually a selling point for stories for big-city readers. But it worked. Maybe it’s because Life of Pi, the third novel by 39-year-old Montreal writer Yann Martel, is also a total page-turner. Simple enough to be read to children and so intricate that several readings wouldn’t be wasted on it, it’s pretty much a miracle that last October, Martel won the biggest literary prize in the world. They don’t usually give those sorts of prizes to books that lots of people, all kinds of people, will enjoy.
Life of Pi is the imaginary autobiography of Piscine Molitor Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy who is Christian, Muslim and Hindu. Pi’s family, who were zookeepers in Pondicherry, India, decide to emigrate to Canada. They bring along all their animals on a big steamship, and Pi is orphaned when the ship sinks. He is left afloat in the Pacific for 277 days with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. He lives to tell the tale.
In a certain sense. Life of Pi is a typical quest-myth coming-of-age story like the ones that exist in every culture in the world: a young person left to his own devices in the world learns how to depend on his own wits. It is also a fairy tale, but a strange one, for Martel was careful, in researching the book, to create scenarios that, while very unlikely, were not totally impossible in the real world.
Anyone who loves a castaway story will be immediately captivated by the details of Pi’s clever problem-solving and his strange adventures.
Martel did a ton of research over the four years it took him to write the book: he studied world religions, ocean survival and animal psychology. He put God into the details, you might say.
Martel insists during an interview that God, in fact, is everywhere, if you want to believe the story that faith tells. In fact, he believes that religious faith is like a really good story or a myth that you want to believe because it makes the world a more interesting and worthwhile place.
“I realized that fiction and religion work in exactly the same way – essentially, that faith in anything, belief of any kind, involves an element of will,” he says.
“For a novel to work, the reader must suspend disbelief, and with religion, choice is the first element of faith. Grand ideas don’t usually hit you on the head forcefully. Do you live life as an atheist, or choose to believe? It’s really a matter of picking the better story.”
Martel, who has walked thousand-mile religious pilgrimages, is the first to admit that his stories are full of unlikely events. It’s something he enjoys greatly.
“I wanted to talk about the unreasonable, so I wrote a story where one of the central themes is the believability of events.”
Martel’s castaway tale is, as mentioned before, wildly improbable. Near the end of the book, his hero encounters a “scientific,” more practical version of the mysterious things that have befallen him. In this possible version, the details are tragic and horrible. The reader gets to decide which story she prefers: the godly one, bursting with life, colour and animals, or the secular, depressing one.
So will Life of Pi really make you believe in God? Only if you’re already so inclined. But Martel insists that the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure quality of the story is not meant to be taken lightly.
“You could completely disagree and think it was unsuccessful in some way, but it does stand out. It takes on things that are completely unfashionable, like religion, which is only in style to the extent that you parody it, or dismiss it,” he says.
But either way, the important thing to Martel is to write a story. After all, what’s a fairy tale without the tale?
“You need plot; plot is underrated,” Martel insists. “It has been reviled as more of a thriller thing. Of course you want beautiful language, but by itself a turn of phrase is just fireworks.
“I’ve written two novels, Self and Pi. After the latter, I realized how good it felt to have a story to tell. With a structure of plot to work with, I felt that, in writing Pi, I could go deep and still be very both very entertaining and elevating.”
So was he surprised that so many “literary types” were willing to give Life of Pi such a big prize?
“I knew when I finished it was a good book, no matter how people reacted to it…so if it had completely flopped, I would have been disappointed: I would have felt a sense of injustice,” he says frankly. “But did I necessarily think it would win? No. When you’re writing a book and you’re vaguely ambitious, you have thoughts -But it’s not completely a lottery. So if Danielle Steele had won the Booker instead of me I would have been like, fuck, what is this?”
Martel, bolstered by his success, says he has two more books in him before he considers quitting the writing world. The next one involves a donkey and a monkey who live on the shirt of a Nazi in WWII-era Germany. One suspects that he can’t help pushing the boundaries of belief to an even further limit.