Misreadings: Jonathan Ball on Yann Martel

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Life of Pi, Yann Martel. Vintage Canada, 2002. 
by Jonathan Ball

Misreadings imagines alternative (or détourned) versions of literary and film works, and subjects these nonexistent imaginings to analysis.

Let’s imagine that Yann Martel’s much-admired and much-maligned novel Life of Pi is, in secret fact, a horror novel.

The most obvious horror-story aspect of Martel’s novel is the carnivorous island. Yet, ultimately, this is not where its horror lies. At the novel’s end, after Pi’s voyage is over, investigators from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport listen to Pi’s story but do not believe it.

The main investigator, Tomohiro Okamoto, exhorts Pi to tell them “what really happened.” Pi Patel berates the investigators for their lack of imagination, their unwillingness to accept his story. In Pi’s (and, Life of Pi‘s) worldview, this amounts to pedantry.

Pi first defends his story (the novel’s story) as the truth, but soon sees that the investigators are not interested in this truth. They want, as they put it, “a story without animals that will explain the sinking of the Tsimtsum.” Pi thinks for a minute. Then says, “Here’s another story.”

Martel then caps his fantastical, wondrous tale with another, alternate version — notably, a bleak, nightmarish, yet entirely “believable” account. Life of Pi is already structured as a story-within-a-story, so that this telling amounts to a story-within-a-story-within-a-story (an ironic undercutting of its realism’s apparent claim to “truth”).

After the Tsimtsum sinks, Pi is rescued by the ship’s cook, hauled into a lifeboat along with two additional survivors, a sailor and Pi’s mother. The cook immediately establishes himself as a horror-story monster. Like some Renfield, he begins to eat flies, and a rat, even though “we had food and water to last us for weeks [… and] no reason to believe that we wouldn’t be rescued soon.” The sailor has a broken leg, and soon the cook convinces the others that it must be amputated. After this happens, and Pi is about to throw the leg overboard, the cook protests and so reveals that the amputation was simply a pretence to obtain the leg (he plans to use it as fishing bait). The sailor soon dies and the cook butchers him. The leg wasn’t good bait, and predictably the cook begins to cannibalize the sailor.

Things spiral further into horror as the cook and Pi’s mother eventually battle, the cook murdering Pi’s mother and tossing her severed head into Pi’s hands. After this, the cook realizes he has gone too far. He more or less offers his life to Pi, butchering a turtle for Pi to eat and then losing a fight with Pi on purpose, leaving a knife out where Pi can seize it, which he does. Pi slaughters the cook with more violence than the cook has yet displayed. He seems curiously detached when recounting this part of the story:

A knife has a horrible dynamic power; once in motion, it’s hard to stop. I stabbed him repeatedly. His blood soothed my chapped hands. His heart was a struggle — all those tubes that connected it. I managed to get it out. It tasted delicious, far better than the turtle. I ate his liver. I cut off great pieces of his flesh.

Okamoto immediately remarks to his partner that this story more or less “matches” the previous story (although, cannily, Martel takes pains to have the characters point out that the story does not match in certain respects, i.e., elements surrounding the carnivorous island). Pi’s first story (the story of the tiger) thus appears as an allegory disguising this second story. The interesting allegorical transformation, as Okamoto points out, is that the Pi of the second story is represented, in the first story, not by the character of Pi but by the tiger. Pi casts himself as the hero of his story in order to refute the reality that he is its monster.

But Martel goes further. Pi points out that neither story explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum — the only thing the investigators really care about. He asks them “since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?” Which is the better story? The first, Okamoto admits. “The story with animals is the better story.”

Thus Martel transforms Life of Pi into a different sort of allegory, an allegory of faith. Given the choice between two stories, the story of a world with God (however monstrous a tiger this God might be) and a world without God (in which we are the monsters), which story would you choose? The complaints about the novel often settle on this point, that Martel appears to have reduced or oversimplified the complex of philosophical questions concerning God’s existence to a species of pedantry. Why not believe the better story, the one that gives meaning to your life — since you will, fundamentally, never know the truth (at least while you live)? Why not believe?

Indeed, Okamoto chooses to believe, and the novel ends with an excerpt from his eventual report: “As an aside, story of sole survivor, Mr. Piscine Molitor Patel, Indian citizen, is an astounding story of courage and endurance in the face of extraordinarily difficult and tragic circumstances. […] Very few castaways can claim to have survived for so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none other in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.

So here is where our misreading comes in. Maybe Martel has not oversimplified the novel’s philosophical inquest, but further complicated it. What if, unlike Okamoto, and despite all willingness, we simply cannot believe this story? The true brilliance of Martel’s novel is that he has written it in such a way that at all moments its story seems either implausible or on the verge of implausibility without committing wholly to fantasy — and thus, essentially, is always asking you to believe an unbelievable story. Then, in the end, Martel taunts us with a more believable story, and asks us not to believe this second story.

Martel’s novel thus tips into horror at any point when we do not believe what is, at its core, an unbelievable story. Let us remind ourselves of a passage from the Quran (chapter 6, verse 111), which (in another misreading) sums up the most elemental yet horrifying paradox of religious faith:

Even if we sent down the angels to them; even if the dead spoke to them; even if we summoned every miracle before them; they cannot believe unless GOD wills it. Indeed, most of them are ignorant.

They cannot believe unless God wills it. What the Quran suggests in this passage, as an acknowledgement of God’s power, is that God’s permission to believe is a precondition to belief. Which opens up the possibility (unintentionally suggested by Martel in the way he has structured Life of Pi) that God exists, but has structured the world and its horrors to prevent us from believing his story.

In other words, the dark question lurking beneath the bright surface of Martel’s novel, which we can only ask after first attending to its horror-story alternative, is this: What if God exists, but tells us a story we cannot believe?

Once our misreading is in motion, its knife is hard to stop. Our blood soothing God’s chapped hands. Our hearts are a struggle — all those tubes. But he manages to get them out.

Jonathan Ball is a regular contributor to Lemon Hound.

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