Current Affairs Interpretations of reality: Yann Martel's Life of Pi

11-04-2003 | Jan Velinger

One of the many interesting authors invited to this year's Prague Writer's Festival was Yann Martel, a Canadian novelist who made headlines world-wide by winning the prestigious Man Booker prize for his novel Life of Pi. Jan Velinger, who attended the festival, met the writer to discuss his fascinating book.

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Yann Martel, photo: CTKYann Martel, photo: CTK Yann Martel's Life of Pi follows the story of a sixteen year-old Indian boy whose desire to find deeper meaning leads him to simultaneously embrace three different religions. This is the source of some of the novel's funnier but also personal moments, with Pi trying to be a good Hindu, Christian, and Muslim all at the same time. Pi's faith is put to its greatest test when he is stranded aboard a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific, after a cargo ship that was supposed to take him to Canada sinks. Also on the lifeboat: zoo animals from the cargo hold that include a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orang-utan and a 450-pound tiger, a scenario that holds the reader captivated while bending his or her belief at the same time. Author Yann Martel:

"What I was trying to do in this book was try and discuss how we interpret reality - most secular readers will read the book and say 'Ah, okay, there's one story told and actually something else happened, and Pi 'invented' this other story to pass the time, or make his reality bearable. That's the secular. The other one, the more religious interpretation, would just be the story you're reading and that's what happened..."

What follows then is a 227 day fight for survival, which ultimately balances the fate of Pi against the Bengal tiger, the story stretching the readers' suspension of disbelief ever further as it unfolds. Once rescued, Pi will choose to present a more believable version of his adventure as the truth, forcing us to question "what actually happened", as well as to ponder different levels of interpretation and meaning.

"Reality isn't just "out there", like some block of cement: reality is an interpretation. In a sense we co-create our reality. And we do that all the time, every day. One day we wake up and we're in a great mood, the city we live in is a beautiful city, the next day it's an ugly city. That's just the way we interpret things. We're not free necessarily to choose the facts of our life, but there is an element of freedom in how we interpret them."

And what about Pi himself and the origins of his unusual nickname?

"I work really hard on my novels and everything has a meaning. Pi is what's called an irrational number, so the nickname "Pi" is irrational. I just thought it was intriguing that this irrational number is used to come to a rational understanding of things. And to my mind religion - and after all Life of Pi is ultimately a religious novel - to me religion is the same thing. Religion is something slightly irrational, non-reasonable, beyond the reasonable, that helps us make sense of things. The character's full name is Piscine Molitor Patel. I chose that name for a lot of reasons. As a child I lived in France, I lived in Paris, and I used to go to the Piscine Molitor, it was a pool I was personally attached to, a beautiful, beautiful pool. And a boy who is named after a swimming pool, which is a controlled body of water, ends up a cast-away on the high seas. "

Those kind of contrasts, comparisons, are ultimately part of what make Life of Pi a pleasurable read, a constant dynamic of various elements connecting and reconnecting to each other. Early in the novel we learn just how dangerous it is to stick one's hand in a tiger cage, a moment we continually go back to as we wonder how sixteen year-old Pi will possibly survive with his magnificent - but also overwhelmingly dangerous - guest. Stuck with each other in the middle of nowhere, each trying desperately to stay alive.

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