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The Ark of Pi

Essay by review  •  November 24, 2010  •  Essay  •  1,762 Words (8 Pages)  •  681 Views

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Life of Pi is intended, so Martel tells us, to make the reader believe in God. This bold, apparently evangelical, premise locates it on a dangerous moral high ground. D.H. Lawrence warned against using the novel as a forum for the author to assert his own moral or religious belief:

Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality. (D.H. Lawrence, "Morality and the Novel")

Aesthetically, the fiction which reveals a truth by explicit sermonising rather than as a natural conclusion drawn from the relationships and events it presents, is displeasing, even "immoral." Indeed, Martel's statement is likely to have the opposite effect on his reader, provoking a determined counter-reaction not to succumb to a didactic religious agenda. Surely enough, Life of Pi fails to meet its ambition. As he travels through its pages, apparently on the Damascun road to enlightenment, the reader will not, atheist or already committed follower, experience some major revelation to the spirit, coming to, or restoring, a belief in God. Nor, despite Martel's explicit but deceptive statement, is he intended to. Instead, Life of Pi achieves something more quietly spectacular: it makes the reader want to believe in God. Martel gives the reader the democratic choice: the desire to believe rather than the belief itself. We do not have to agree with the ideology Martel delivers, but we can support to the full the way he says it, for Martel inspires the reader's desire by invoking the spirit of the fairy tale - the simple narrative which may reveal virtues and ethics yet is primarily concerned with entertaining the reader (or listener, as young children often are of such stories) in magical ways which powerfully invoke the active imagination.

Martel insures his novel against critical dialects which insist on penetrative analysis and engagement with the text on a political rather than emotional level, whose goal is establishing meaning and influence behind a linguistic act. He reawakens the central power of the story as yarn and legend, as the entertaining narrative told round the camp fire and handed between generations, designed to pass the night hours with captivating drama rather than to deliver political analyses on contemporary society. Life of Pi's printed words have the loud echoes of orality as the text is framed by acts of speech, hearing and translation. In the initial pages, Martel assumes an italicised guise, focusing on the fact that the narrative to follow is one he has heard coincidentally, not deliberately created. He is the eventual author of a story which is not his own but which belongs to Pi, its primary teller; Martel's task is one of translation, not creation, interpretation or even alteration. Likewise, at the close, the child Pi relates his narrative again to two foreign interviewers, who record his words - and their own naive, uncomprehending interpretation of them - on a dictaphone with vicious electronic permanence. The text we read is a solid record of a story which is, in its vocal form, endlessly fluid, subject to change and amendments to increase its interest for a captivated audience. In normal circumstances such self-consciousness about the literary act might challenge the reader, forcing him into noting the multiple ways and biases with which a single event can be portrayed by a writer, to question the integrity and believability of the narrative, to analyse the text itself as an artefact rather than what that text says. Yet in this instance the challenge is to avoid doing this, and thus to be unlike the pessimistic and dully factual insurance brokers who interrogate Pi at the end. We must lower our critical consciousness, becoming passive recipients of an emotionally pleasing narrative, unquestioning of its real authenticity.

Indeed, one of central metaphors of the novel, the name of the hero Pi, establishes these two alternative modes of reaction: the rational and the aesthetic. 'Pi' is an irritating and unique number for the mathematician who, above all other academics, desires certainty and factuality. It is a number continuous and complex, fascinating for its infinite randomness yet frustrating precisely because as a product of circular maths it defies rules of explanation; it is produced by a single logical equation, yet the product itself is uncontainable. The novel functions in line with this paradox. As divisible into beginning (Martel's italicised voice), middle (the main story) and end (the Japanese questioners) as a circle is by its radius, the novel occupies too perfectly 100 chapters. Yet the miraculous outcomes of this definite structure - a small boat, an Indian boy, a 450-pound Bengal tiger and a meeting with a Frenchman in the middle of a vast ocean - defy explanation, logic, reality. This is magic realism in its most subversive form because it contains the most uncanny events produced from the most obviously conventional means of comprehension: language, publishing, a trustworthy author in control of his narrative.

Martel takes different modes of discourse and genre, mutates their characteristics and mixes together them between a single set of covers. Like India, which is a harmonious point of collision of different cultures and religions, and of which Pi (who derives different choice benefits from the three religions he follows simultaneously) is the most vivid embodiment, the book holds together styles from different departments of the library. In the opening chapters of Pi's story, he makes an empathic analysis of zoology and animal psychology which seems to owe something to Gerald Durrell. Taking common sense as its index, Martel/Pi explains how creatures feel and thus logically why tigers can be tamed by man and why wild creatures are content to stay in zoos. It is remarkable because it makes the reader see animals in a different way, as bodies holding emotional content, rather as simply sharp-clawed vehicles for the carrying out of violent primal instincts. But if emotional animals (who also, unhappily, get seasick) are remarkable because the reader has not thought of them in such terms before, is this any more astonishing than the discovery of an uncharted carnivorous island inhabited solely by meerkats in the middle of the ocean? Might it simply be that, just as we haven't thought about animals as possessing emotional soul, we haven't yet

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