A Q&A with Life of Pi author, Yann Martel.
Author Yann Martel shares his ideas on the main themes he set out to address in the work, the questions that interested him most while writing the novel, what students might gain from reading the text, and why he believes that life is an ‘act of interpretation’ that resists being reduced to ‘facts’.
‘Truth is not just a matter of facts. Stories aren’t just whimsical make-believe. Faith is not a passive state, but requires an active use of one’s imagination. It is in the careful blending of reality and imagination that we plumb the full depths of life.’
English Experience: What prompted or inspired you to write the novel?
Yann Martel: Many things. A trip to India. An interest in looking at religion. Encounters with animals. The urge to understand. The desire to tell a story.
EE: What were the main themes you set out to address in the work?
YM: I was interested in exploring the idea that life is an interpretation, that facts are the ground upon which we build our lives, not the building itself. We cannot ignore facts, but neither should we be reduced by them or to them.
In examining religion in Life of Pi, I was looking at a belief system that excels at taking a few facts (the life of a long-ago rabble-rousing Jew, for example) and constructing an entire world-view from them.
Much of religion is unverifiable. To take the example of Christianity, there is little doubt that a man named Jesus really did live about two thousand years ago in Palestine, but what is very much open to question is what to make of Jesus. The truth of the divine aspect of his life can’t be corroborated in any reasonable way. It can only be corroborated in an imaginative way through faith. (The same goes for every other religion or, indeed, for any belief system that requires faith.) Faith is an interpretation. It is a way of seeing.
EE: Why did you choose this subject matter for your novel?
YM: I happened to be in India, backpacking. I meant to work on a novel set in Portugal, but, as I explain in the ‘Author’s Note’ of Life of Pi, the novel didn’t come alive and I put it aside. I had no particular reason to be in India anymore. So, what did I do? I opened my eyes. And what did I see? I saw religion.
There are a lot of religions in India. Hinduism, of course, but also Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Animism, and so on. They are on show everywhere, not only as buildings — temples, shrines, churches — but also in great festivals and pilgrimages that involve thousands upon thousands of people. And, for the first time in my life, I reacted to these manifestations of religion in a way that did not confirm my prejudices.
I should explain that I grew up in an entirely secular family from the most secular province of Canada. Until that visit to India, I held religion in disdain. I knew just enough about religion to dislike it. Religion seemed to me to be an excuse for hating women, gay people, Jewish people and anyone else who was different, based on nonsense myths from long ago. It seemed to me to be an insult to common sense.
In India, I didn’t have my usual gut reaction to religion because I was seeing it in a foreign context. I watched people praying and I wandered through great temple complexes, without seeking to condemn. I suddenly realised that there was another aspect to the religious experience that I had never seen or understood and, out of this moment of openness and curiosity, I wrote Life of Pi.
This is, sadly, not to say that religion isn’t afflicted with people who are, indeed, misogynists, anti-Semites and so on, but that these people aren’t the whole picture.
EE: How did you decide on the title for the novel?
YM: Life of Pi was just the working title, but it stuck. The one thing I thought about was whether to put ‘The’ at the start. Life of Pi is about openness and choice, though, so a definite article didn’t seem right. A Life of Pi would be more open, but it sounded funny. Finally, I decided to have no article at all.
EE: How do you imagine South African students will respond to Life of Pi?
YM: I imagine that readers in South Africa will bring what readers everywhere bring to a book: that mix of openness and suspicion that characterises each of us. Some will be won over by the book, others not.
EE: Do you think teenage South African students will be able to relate to Pi and his experiences?
YM: I hope so. Religion is present in South Africa, as are animals, and South African teenagers, like teenagers — and, indeed, everyone — everywhere, have questions about life: the meaning of it, what to make of it, their place in it. Life of Pi is about two stories that can be mapped onto the facts of Pi Patel’s life. Everyone must do the same thing: find stories that fit the facts of their life.
‘Life of Pi is about two stories that can be mapped onto
the facts of Pi Patel’s life. Everyone must do the same thing:
find stories that fit the facts of their life.’
EE: Could you describe your inspiration behind the complex character of Pi?
YM: I built him one brick at a time. He is a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian. That is three bricks. He grows up in a zoo. That is another brick. He has a family. He is curious and open-minded — more bricks. Soon enough, he was built and came to life.
EE: How do you believe Pi’s coming-of-age journey impacts on his psyche?
YM: I think it shatters his psyche, at first, but that his inner self comes back together even more strongly because Pi has the tools to survive his ordeal. Pi shows strength of character, but I think there will always be an element of sadness within him as a consequence of what he lived through. You can’t eliminate scars. You can only learn to live with them.
EE: How do you think the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker evolves throughout the course of the novel?
YM: I think it is a relationship based on mutual need — and compassion, on Pi’s part — framed by a very clear knowledge of borders.
EE: What do you think Richard Parker symbolises for Pi, ultimately?
YM: The key to his survival. Without Richard Parker, Pi wouldn’t have survived. Perhaps the more interesting question is what does Richard Parker symbolise for the reader? And that is something for the reader to work out for his or herself.
EE: What do you believe the novel suggests about the relationship between spirituality and the will to survive?
YM: Spirituality lends another dimension to survival.
Someone who is a pure materialist, who believes that all life and consciousness is the result of chance chemistry, sees death as a final and complete end. Pure blackness. Someone who is religious sees death differently. Death is a threshold that must be crossed. It is, no doubt, distressing and often painful, but it is a crossing into something else, a new state. Religion, therefore, extends life to include death: one never really dies, one only changes one’s way of being. The fear of death is, thus, lessened.
Now, it is not easy being religious. It requires a deep imaginative sense, one that transforms reality. That imaginative sense usually comes only when it is needed. When you are young and immortal, who needs religion? It is when death starts knocking on the door of your mortality that you might start thinking differently.
EE: What point do you think the novel makes about storytelling and the nature of truth?
YM: That truth is not just a matter of facts. That stories aren’t just whimsical make-believe. That faith is not a passive state, but requires an active use of one’s imagination. It is in the careful blending of reality and imagination that we plumb the full depths of life.
EE: What do you think the algae island symbolises for Pi?
YM: I wanted the algae island to float just beyond what a reader could reasonably believe. Until that point, the reader has believed in Pi’s survival and the tiger and, now, I push him or her even further.
If you are going to believe Pi’s first story, the story with animals, I want you to have to stop being entirely reasonable and make a leap of faith and believe his account of the island — and be the better for it.
Life is about perfecting the art of believing as much as possible because what triumph is there, at the end of a life, in having believed as little as possible?
‘Life is about perfecting the art of believing as much as possible because what triumph is there, at the end of a life,
in having believed as little as possible?’
EE: Do you think Pi’s spirituality plays a role in his appreciation and awe of the natural world that he experiences from the boat?
YM: Religion is all about awe and wonder so, yes, I think Pi’s spirituality adds colour to the world around him. It makes a tiger, a whale, a shark more than just a biological being.
EE: Do you believe Pi reconciles his religious faith with his scientific beliefs?
YM: There has developed in Christianity this misconception that science and religion are antithetical. Islam has no problems with science. Science started in Islam because Muslims were curious about God’s creation. If God created the world, studying the world became a religious act. So, whatever was discovered in the world never put God in question for Muslim scientists, it only opened up the marvels of God’s creation more.
EE: What advice would you give students to help them understand the work?
YM: Don’t worry about getting it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. There is no ‘right’ answer. There is no ‘wrong’ answer. There is only what you think and feel. Trust your sense. And read the book, of course.
EE: If students were to take only one, single-minded message away from the novel, what would you like it to be?
YM: I would rather students take whatever they want from the novel. Reading a novel freely is the best way to get the most out of it, I think.
EE: What reactions to the novel from readers have surprised you the most?
YM: Oh, so many. A reader pointing out to me that 227 (the number of days that Pi spends at sea with Richard Parker), if seen as 22 over 7, is the number pi. The many interpretations of the algae island made by readers. The reader who interpreted Pi’s survival with a tiger whom he feeds and cleans and who leaves him without saying good-bye as a metaphor for marriage. And so on.
I was amazed at the number of people who made the story their own in some form or other and, therefore, brought so many aspects of their own personalities to it. It is as if the book acquired a new writer each time it had a new reader.
EE: If you were to rewrite the novel now, would you do anything differently?
YM: There is no perfection in life or in literature. I’ve let go of Life of Pi. It is what it is.
EE: Are there any particular works or authors you would recommend to students who are keen to explore the issues you raise in Life of Pi further?
YM: I read many, many wonderful books as research for Life of Pi. The first one that comes to mind is A History of God by Karen Armstrong. It is a luminous exploration of monotheism. The second is Diane Eck’s Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Benares. These are adult books, but a keen teenager should be able to handle them.
EE: Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring young writers?
YM: Read, read, read. Think, think, think. Write, write, write. But let go of ends. Don’t write for a particular purpose, only for the joy of it.