Jeva Lange: The Last Book I Loved, Life of Pi


Neither of my parents finished reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. My father abandoned the novel halfway through, pleading boredom, and my mother couldn’t get past the first few chapters due to her infamously weak stomach and a detailed lesson in tiger dangerousness.

I, on the other hand, raced through the book as soon as it was passed on to me. I was ten years old at the time. Perhaps as a result, my takeaway was not a rich allegory, but rather a story about a boy stuck in a boat for a long time with a tiger. I was likely disappointed that, as Pi had been billed as a fantasy, there hadn’t been dragons.

Life of Pi, as I remember, was the book of the new millennium. I read it two years late, on its second wave of popularity after it had won the 2002 Man Booker Prize, about the time it was crossing into the realm of seven million copies sold. It also came highly recommended by word-of-mouth, although not, of course, from the mouths of my parents.

If you missed the boat (so to speak), Life of Pi is nothing more than a survivor story of a zookeeper’s son stranded in a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena, and, of course, a Bengal tiger. Life of Pi is presented by Martel as something of a “true” story through a factious/fictitious author’s note preceding the actual bulk of the novel. In this author’s note, Martel claims that the narrative in Pi was actually received from an Indian who promised that the story could “make you believe in God.” Which god was unspecified. The particularly notable attribute of the titular character Pi is that he is a Christian, Hindu and Muslim all at once.

I recently reread Life of Pi, not to rediscover what I missed at ten, but to prep myself for the adaptation. Inspired after I watched the eleven seconds of CGI tiger that were released as a teaser last summer, I buckled down.

2012’s second half is not lacking in literary adaptations (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, On the Road, Cosmopolis, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, Lawless…) but November 21st’s Life of Pi is of an entirely different caliber. To begin, director Ang Lee probably has some idea what he’s doing. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain found itself beautifully re-imagined in his 2005 rendition, losing an Oscar Best Picture win only to the less-daring Crash.

On the other hand, Pi is not an easy story for any director to take on. The novel lingers 227 days in a raft adrift in the Pacific, with a set no larger than that of a lifeboat. But oh, is there promise. The eleven seconds released in promotion last summer of course featured Pi’s seaworthy companion, the tiger from his father’s zoo whose name (via a small mix-up) is Richard Parker. The computer graphics looked both terrifying and beautiful, as 21st century graphics tend to be.

Despite appearing to be brilliantly original however, Lee’s adaptation is not the first time Richard Parker, or Pi, have been imagined in a visual image. In 2007, a Croatian artist by the name of Tomislav Torjanac won an international competition to illustrate a new edition of Martel’s Life of Pi. Torjanac captures Richard Parker expertly, such as in the image of his eyes boggling at fish, and a particular angling of all the pieces cleverly suggests Pi’s point of view (which, readers of the novel would know, turns out to be a very important detail). While enchanting, the images lack the same symbolic richness and poetry that Martel’s writing in fact paints, and that I dearly hope Lee has made a point to capture.

It is this poetry in Pi that perhaps attracts all seven million of us to the story. Although the adaption is twelve years late in coming, Life of Pi is already being billed as potential Oscar bait; as a result, the novel is finally having a third surge of attention. Martel has certainly been at work in the meantime (publishing a Holocaust novel Beatrice and Virgil in 2010 and conducting the What is Stephen Harper Reading? project between 2007 and 2011), however, when it’s all said and done, Pi is truly the piece that continues to be the most productive and effective. It’s actually somewhat spectacular; a resurgence of Life of Pi a decade later practically insists on a different way of reading it.

But that’s just it. Pi is timeless. Reading with new eyes, in a changed, ten-year-older nation and world, not a whole lot can actually be approached differently. It remains nothing much more than the survivor story it was when it was written a decade ago.

Of course, revisiting Pi is not lacking in all forms of discovery. On its first wave, critic James Wood pointed out the curious lack of religious questioning brought about by the very-religious Pi during his period in the boat. I suggest, perhaps, that this is not the point. Martel, although boldly claiming his novel could “make you believe in God,” is not using Pi as a tool to bridge from fantasy to philosophy. Yes, Life of Pi is a book about faith and belief, but faith and belief in who is irrelevant. It is not a god, but Pi’s trust in zoology and his faith in the symbiotic interlacing of his fate with Richard Parker’s that ultimately keeps him alive.

Thus, we are left to question larger things; that is, to reflect that Life of Pi is, in fact, a contemplation of the art of storytelling itself. This requires faith in Martel’s story, as well as faith in Pi’s.

In fact, the biggest problem Lee faces in his adaptation of Martel’s novel is not the small set or the CGI animals. The biggest problem is that, at its heart, Life of Pi is a story about stories, a sort of beautiful circularity that is made more beautiful by the fact that it is written on a page. As readers, we must question our own faith in a story, and ask ourselves what makes us believe in it. A debate over the ending of the novel is senseless; what matters is that we ask ourselves, What do I believe, and why?

A story that will make you believe in God. Well, perhaps the claim is not entirely false. If you find that you can trust Pi’s story is true, you might find yourself trusting in the larger questions—ah, rather, in the larger stories—that haunt us as well. Despite this particular wording, however, Martel does not set out to answer our questions. He sets out instead to ask those that are the most timeless.

Martel assures us from the beginning that Life of Pi has a happy ending. Rather, we must agree, it has no ending at all.

Jeva Lange is a Seattleite majoring in literature at Bennington College. She is a fiction editor for plain china and has been published in Village Voice Media's Seattle Weekly. This spring she will be living in New York City, studying journalism, and writing for NY Daily News' "Page Views." More from this author →