Friday, April 15, 2016

Life of Pi

When Canadian writer Yann Martel brought Life of Pi to potential publishers, no one was quite sure what to make of it. Some saw enormous value in this philosophically-inclined tale, while others hesitated over how to categorize it: was it a novel? A fable? A book about religion? Martel himself hesitated, unsure who he could trust to bring the book out without such categorical labels. Finally, UK publisher Jamie Byng wrote to Martel with such an impassioned letter that the author was persuaded to sell him the rights; the book went on to win the Man Booker Prize, the UK's most prestigious, and to sell millions of copies worldwide; in 2012, director Ang Lee's film version won numerous accolades, including a Best Director Oscar® for Lee, as well as for cinematography, visual effects, and score.

And now, long after the champagne corks have been swept off the floors of that year's post-award parties, the book continues to puzzle. Is it an allegory? A fantasy? A true story? A veiled memoir of Mr. Martel? More than 150 years ago, in 1838, another great writer similarly baffled his readers with a claim that he had come upon a great story, an unlikely tale of stowing away, being being lost at sea, and arriving at an unfamiliar shore -- and by chance, it too had a narrator whose name was a monosyllable beginning with "P." This was of course The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (whose name also, come to think of it, has one syllable and starts with "P"). Poe, having written himself into a bit of a corner when his narrator reached Antarctica, ended his book precipitously, explaining to his readers that Mr. Pym had, most inconveniently, died. Martel, happily, does not frustrate his readers in that way, though he finds many others: It is claimed, in its introduction, to be a tale that will make one "believe in God" -- but which one? Pi seems to have a conversion experience every time he visits another holy man, and it doesn't seem to occur to him that most gods are jealous, and will have no other gods before them; he even thanks the Hundu god Rama for leading him to Jesus!

There's more to come -- much much more -- but already, we seem to be at sea!