More Martel: Yann answers his public

For over four years Yann Martel researched and wrote Life of Pi. He described the book to his York audience on Dec. 4 as a “competition between two stories, one secular and one requiring a leap of faith. One part is rooted in the animal condition of fear, jealousy and hunger and the other looks at how high we can go as humans.”

Near the end of the novel, the central character, Pi, is questioned by officials, who are investigating the sinking of the cargo ship and asking for the story of his survival.

When Pi senses they don’t believe that he spent months in a lifeboat with a tiger, he gives them a different version of events. After he tells his story, the investigators choose Pi’s “unbelievable” version of events for their report.

“I wanted to show there are many ways of interpreting life,” said Martel, explaining why he wrote two versions of events. “I wanted one to be transcendent – requiring a leap of faith and the other to be non-transcendent. Which do you accept? Which do you believe?”

Here is a sample of the many questions Martel handled during the Canadian Writers in Person series evening.

Q: Some people said you borrowed your story from Max and the Cats, by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar. What do you say about this?

A: How can you plagiarize something you’ve never read? Scliar influenced me. I saw a review of his book and began writing mine several years later. I have spoken to the author since and we get along fine. In fact, his book has done well since this controversy. Now people say he was influenced by Life of Pi [laughter].

Q: The person Pi meets in another lifeboat, I saw that person as representing Jesus Christ. Is that right?

A: It’s a valid interpretation, but is it what I had in mind? My opinion is neither here nor there, it doesn’t matter. I am not here to influence you. Richard Parker [the tiger] could be a symbol for Christ or God. I’ve been asked by a woman if he represents a man, “a woman looks after him, picks up after him and afterwards he leaves without saying good-bye” [laughter]. I’ve even had someone ask if Richard Parker is a metaphor for stamp collecting!

Some see the presence of the tiger as a clash between the mystical East and rational West. It doesn’t matter specifically what the tiger means. I just wanted to put a man and a tiger together in the story.

Q: Are you a spiritual person?

A: I never had God in my life prior to this book. My parents are part of the Quiet Revolution – anti-clerical. They left religion and they left Quebec, and that’s why I was born in Spain. But eventually I found I was running on “empty”. I was very rational, but what does being “rational” mean in itself? Then I went to India and it struck me that, there, religion is still extremely visible. It is the fabric of life for people. I started going to churches, temples, mosques. Yes, most religion is repressive. But I wanted to see if there was something grand beyond that. I found that religion is far less of an insult to rationality than I’d thought. I see Islam and Christianity as beautiful. Jesus Christ is a beautiful figure. And, when you read the Koran there’s a certain voice there where you feel the hot breath of God in your ear, a great intensity.

So, all of these things set me on the road to religion and opened me up to a conception of reality that I wasn’t open to before.

In the West, religion has withered. We hide human death and we are obsessed with youth….Yet, technology is triumphant. We tend to be fascinated with it. But in the end, what does technology mean to your life?

When Reena Virk [the Victoria, BC teenager slain by schoolmates in 1997] was murdered, her parents said they forgave her killers. I think their religion helped them, whereas secular parents of a murdered daughter might have been destroyed for the rest of their lives.

Q: What can you tell us about the animals in the lifeboat?

A: I first looked at how they really are, not how we feel about them. Richard Parker was going to be a rhinoceros at first but there were practical problems. Rhinos are herbivores, and I didn’t see how I was going to keep him alive for 227 days [laughter]. Also, a rhino doesn’t resonate symbolically, because people mistakenly think of them as dull, clumsy – so the idea fell with a thud.

I opened my eyes to animals and observed their habits, before I wrote about them, and I did some research. It is so difficult not to anthropomorphize them. Even Jane Goodall [acclaimed researcher of chimpanzee behaviour] named her subjects.


Left: The growing crowd awaits Martel’s talk

Q: Pi tells two different versions of his story at the end. Did you write both stories at the same time?

A: I conceived them at the same time, but I wrote the novel in chronological order. 

 Q: The book contains graphically gory parts. Why?

A: Because nature – the animal world – is like that, it is a ballet between life and death. There is no sense of injustice in nature when a baby gnu is eaten by a pack of hyenas. And life and religion contain a fair level of violence. There is the fight between life and death.

Q: Why did you call the cargo ship that sank, Tsimtsum?

A: I wanted a representative scoop of religions in the book – Hindu, Christian, Islam. I would have loved to have Pi be a Jew, too, but there are no synagogues in Pondicherry [in India, where the story begins]…. So I chose Tsimtsum as the name of the Japanese cargo boat because, although it sounds Japanese, it is a Hebrew word.

Q: How did you develop the voice of Pi?

A: I didn’t work hard on his character. The story began as a competition between the secular and the religious. Then I worked on the zoological details of how Pi would survive. I wanted him to be young, because it seemed more likely that a young person would believe in three religions, with a quality of wonder.

Q: Why does the tiger leave without saying good-bye?

A: One explanation might be that Richard Parker represents the part of Pi that could commit murder, so the tiger disappears, as if burying Pi’s shame.

Q: Have you ever considered that Richard Parker is only in Pi’s imagination?

A: It is up to you to choose between the first version of the story and the second, between the transcendent and the non-transcendent.

Q: Will there be a movie about Life of Pi? How would Richard Parker be portrayed?

A: It will be a Hollywood movie with the director of Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan [left], who is very bright. Since he was born in Pondicherry, India, I have hopes that he will be faithful to the novel. I am hoping to have a working relationship with him. Richard Parker will just be some tame tiger in a lifeboat – with a brave Indian actor!

Q: Do you see Life of Pi as a very Canadian book?

A: I have made that connection myself. I think Canadian fiction has done so well because we’re multicultural. I think of Canada as a big hotel: You’re made very welcome. Everyone is an immigrant here, except for people of the First Nations. You can be born elsewhere and be Canadian. It is an act of faith.