Will it make you believe in God?

I finally read Life of Pi, the book by Yann Martel that I mentioned a few months ago. It was definitely worth the read.

The story starts with a fictional account of Mr. Martel as he struggles with his writing. On vacation in India, he meets a man in a coffee shop who offers to tell him a story. “This is a story,” says the man. “That will make you believe in God.” Thus the author is introduced to Mr. Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian man named after a French swimming pool, and is gradually told the incredible story of a 16-year-old boy’s 227-day voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

One of my favorite parts of the book was how the characters were introduced. We hear Piscine (who nicknamed himself Pi after merciless teasing) tell the story of his childhood and how he spent most of his time in his father’s zoo. He gives us tips and dispels rumors on animal care and welcomes us to the sights and smells of Pondicherry, India. These pages of animal lore might seem boring and useless to some, but they are actually an integral part of the story. Everything Pi tells us should be clearly labeled and filed away. He is giving us ammunition to tackle the rest of the tale.

Any story about a shipwreck becomes a story about particulars, about inventories. As Pi’s family is moving via cargo ship to their new home in Winnipeg, their ship suffers a hull breach and begins to sink. Pi escapes onto a lifeboat as the ship goes down, almost entirely alone. At this point, once the initial intensity of escape has begun to wear off and Pi is starting to realize he might just be on this tiny boat for quite some time, I begin to wonder, “Just how big is the lifeboat? How many supplies does he have? What is the weather like?” All these things will play into the survival story and so must be introduced before they are needed. If the author waited until the need arose before informing us of the solution, we would feel cheated. It would be like a baseball announcer explaining that the players are allowed to steal bases after the runner is already halfway to third. Especially in survival stories, the answers to the questions must be before our eyes. Of course, they ought to be jumbled like puzzle pieces in a box, nearly impossible to connect, but we should always be able to say, “Oh, that’s how that piece plays in,” when the storyteller shows us the answer.

This is why the introduction is so brilliant. We are introduced to the animals before we meet them, and so, when a 450-lb Bengal tiger climbs aboard the boat with Pi, we know exactly the trouble he’s in. This is where the book is strongest, when we know what Pi knows, and it affects us. I never for a moment forgot the presence of the tiger, and I never stopped wracking my brain for a solution to the problem – until, in detective-novel fashion, the author brings out the final connecting piece and the whole picture makes sense.

The book’s rambling, erratic structure unfortunately undermines some of the power of the plot, but as a whole, the book stayed strong. Only a few things I thought could have been improved.

For one thing, I rarely identified myself with Pi. He seemed to have very little to guide him beyond staying alive, and that (fortunately) is something I seem to have little trouble with. His sufferings didn’t get in my face, they didn’t make me want to go outside and make sure the world was still there, make sure I hadn’t floated away in the ocean. His story was interesting, it was entertaining, but there was very little about the book to make me see my world in a different way. (Although I am interested in trying turtle.)

Would this story make me believe in God? Not by itself. God actually rarely came up, and when he did, his name was Allah. As a teenager, Pi embraced the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian faiths, and never saw any contradiction between the three. When confronted by his priest, his imam, and his pandit, all at the same time, Pi mutters, “I just want to love God.” Perhaps it was the presence of so many religions, so much false certainty, so many gods, but whatever the reason, I have trouble believing that this story would convince anyone of the presence of God. But that’s not to say it wasn’t worth reading.