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PI¨Summing Up Meaning from the Irrational Interview with Yann Martel

My introduction to Yann Martel came ten years ago. I went to see him read a novella-length story called "The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios" which concerned the friendship of two college-aged men, one dying of AIDS. It was a difficult challenge as readings go¨especially in a bar, and especially if your story takes seventy-five pages to tell. Yet the then unknown Martel held a packed house's attention for nearly an hour, as he recounted "Helsinki", seemingly from heart, betraying the conversational candour of his prose. Martel's story moved and astonished me (Martel was awarded the Journey Prize in 1991 for that very piece of writing¨the title story of his first book, a collection of short stories published by Knopf in 1993). His first novel, Self (Vintage Canada, 1997) was published internationally. And now some of the highest praise for this Canadian novelist is coming out of the UK where Life of Pi (Knopf Canada, 2001), Martel's third work of fiction has just been released by the young maverick Scottish press, Canongate. Margaret Atwood, writing in Sunday Times, declared the book "fresh, original, smart, devious, and crammed with absorbing lore."

Life of Pi is a castaway story, a tale punctuated by humour and horror that counts zoology and religion as two of its themes. Martel takes a boy of sixteen (Piscine Molitor, nicknamed ŠPi'), three religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam), and 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker), and sets them afloat over 300-and-some odd pages. Along the way, Pi's survival skills become as honed as Martel's disciplined technique. These are passages of miracles and mirages in which the reader, much like Pi's orange-and-black-striped shipmate, is gradually trained to suspend his disbelief, and finally, Štamed' outright. There is nothing undue or harsh about this. Martel asks his readers to accept a sea-change; that is, to meet him half-way, out in the wild blue Pacific, to experience something rich and strange, something with the power to transform. Martel was born in 1963 in Salamanca, Spain. He has lived in Alaska, Costa Rica, France, and Mexico. He now lives in Montreal.

Andrew Steinmetz: During your reading this April at the Blue Metropolis Literary festival in Montreal, you explained to the audience that you tend to "over plan" your novels. Can you tell me about this process?

Yann Martel: I guess it has to do with the way we naturally do things. I begin all my books with a great idea that lights up my head. Then I do research, which, for Life of Pi, took me close to two years. For Self it also took me about two years. I read, take notes, and then, when I figure I have enough, or too much, I stop doing research and start writing. This process worked very well for Life of Pi. Of all the information I gathered, whether on religion, zoology, or castaway stories, I discarded relatively little. But obviously it's a fairly laboured process¨which is fine; that's the way I operate.

AS: Life of Pi has been called a fable. The elderly man quoted in the novel's Author's Note says, "I have a story that will make you believe in God". Do you equate belief or religious faith with suspension of disbelief in fiction?

YM: Very much so. I think religion operates in the exact same way as a novel operates. For a good novel to work, you have to suspend your disbelief. That, in fact, is an indication of a good novel. When you start reading Lord of the Rings, the tiny short people with hairy toes do not bother you¨the same thing with Moby Dick and the big white whales. A bad novel is one that, just as soon as you start reading you say, ŠOh this is so improbable. These are cardboard characters!' Exactly the same thing happens with religion. A good religion makes you suspend your disbelief. Well they don't say that. What they say is, you have faith. A bad religion is what we call a cult. Someone outside that cult will just look at it and laugh. Whereas someone who is convinced of their religion can be deeply moved by it.

To say that religion operates like a novel, like fiction, in no way means that religion doesn't speak truth. After all, to use truth as a yardstick by which we measure whether we should trust something is very limiting because we do not operate strictly along the lines of factual truth. Things are as we interpret them. Colour, for example, is an interpretation. So is personality. I see a "personality" whereas you are nothing but a carbon-derived life form with some chemical elements added in. That doesn't mean you and a plant should be treated the same way. No. My way of viewing Šyou' means that you are more important than grass.

AS: But the reason you did so much research for Pi is that you yourself understand that our interpretation and appraisal of this story will depend on how you can present the improbable as reasonably as possible, presenting details based on natural fact or science.

YM: Yes. For it to be reasonable, I have to have enough details to make you suspend your disbelief. I didn't write in a fable-like language. My story is very realistic and all the little details are not only true to life, they are absolutely true. Details about how to butcher a turtle, or the fact that turtle blood is salt free and therefore you can also drink it¨all those details are absolutely true.

AS: Tell me about the name of the narrator, Pi.

YM: That's the first two letters of his name: Piscine Molitor. He's mocked and called "pissing" in school, so he gives himself a nickname. Why I chose Pi is a different story. Pi (3.14Ó) is a commonly used number in mathematics. It's used in science to understand the universe and interestingly enough it's an irrational number. An irrational number is one that goes on forever without a discernible pattern. So this irrational number is used for reasoning. I thought it was interesting that this number which is beyond our understanding is used to come to an understanding of the world. I think that the same thing is going on in religion. Mystery does that to us. If we constantly seek to understand everything, we get lost, whereas as we allow a degree of mystery into our lives suddenly things seem clear.

AS: How important was it to you to have Pi a practising Muslim, Christian, and Hindu?

YM: If he were just a Catholic, I was afraid people would say this is a fundamentalist book. I think it would have turned people off. If he were a Muslim, well, most people wouldn't understand it. And if he were a Hindu, well that would have been too exotic. This is in no way a defence of organized religion. It is an argument that faith, or what's at the core of religion, is something that should definitely be considered. Coupled together with reason, it makes for a better life, a better story, and a more whole human being. I had to find a way to make all three religions relative and the way to do that was to have Pi practise all three. This clearly indicates that Pi is not a fundamentalist and that he's not dogmatic. And it allows me to introduce of a little bit of humour.

AS: I didn't feel that Pi's three religions influenced his survival method, or for that matter, informed his character while he was on the raft.

YM: Well listen, let's not mistake religion for a cook book. It gives you faith, it doesn't mean it will teach you how to survive at sea. That you have to do by your own wits. I did not want to turn this novel into an allegory on Jesus Christ or Mohammed or Krishna. What would be the point? It would turn it into a puzzle, a cryptic commentary on these religions, and no one would get it. It would have burdened the plot unnecessarily. I wasn't interested in re-telling old stories but in telling a new one.

AS: I had a look at the Canongate edition of your book. What does it feel like when someone compares you to a Šmore compassionate Paul Auster.' Do you know what that means?

YM: No. Not really. People like comparing. It's the same with animals. Animals fear the unknown the most. Readers are the same. They want some kind of a signpost. It's also easier for publishers to label writers and signal genres to potential readers. But I'm not following any one writer in particular. That doesn't mean I'm original. But I've no Master looming in my head. ˛

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