Yann Martel
Yann Martel; drawing by David Levine

Halfway through Yann Martel’s first novel, Self (1996), the young first-person narrator abruptly decides to write a novel that will “address this matter of God.” This sounds a bit whimsical at first. It appears to be part of the same impulse to startle the reader that makes Martel leave some pages blank in Self, or fill several of them in his collection of stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993) with nothing more than the words “blah-blah-blah-blah.”

But this matter of God turns out to be very important to the narrator of Self, who, like Martel himself, was born to French-Canadian diplomat parents in the early Sixties, spent a nomadic childhood in several countries, and is a student of philosophy. He describes falling unhappily in love, discovering masturbation, being bullied at school and bored at college. He has watched a lot of television—“it would be impossible,” he asserts, “to talk of my childhood without mentioning television.” He describes losing his virginity, and backpacking through the exotic East. It sounds like a privileged life—one that he shares with many Canadian men of his class and generation—but quite early on in it he has begun to feel restless, and to long for some kind of transcendence.

A similar sort of discontent is spelled out more clearly by the narrator of the title story in the collection The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, who also partly shares Martel’s background, and who denounces “the insipidity, comfort and insularity” of life in Canada, particularly for his generation, which “has had it good and easy.” The first-person narrator of another story in the same collection, “The Mirror Machine,” concludes that in North America “materialism is a heaviness, a tragic distraction.” In an interview last year with The Washington Post, Martel appeared to confirm that he had given part of his experience and outlook to his fictional narrators. He described himself as a “good, middle-class boy” who had become a “seeker.” He questioned the primacy of “reason” in modern life. He thought that it “kills mystery” and leads to “a common thing in the West, a kind of spiritual hunger.”

To the narrator of Self, for whom life in North America “lacked the spirit that would have turned each step into a dance step, with its proper measure, rhythm and grace,” the turn toward God is both aesthetically and psychologically appealing. As he writes,

Occasionally I could intuit how much grander the march of life would be if God were. At such moments the truth or falsity of God’s being seemed irrelevant. It was a fiction of such magnitude, why not believe it? What was gained by a truth that left one with an empty feeling? I could get by without God in the illusory infinity of my daily hours, but if I were in a plane about to crash, would I not miss Him? Would I not create him? And if I survived, would I want to dismiss Him a second time?

Piscine Molitor Patel, the South Indian protagonist and main narrator of Martel’s most recent novel, Life of Pi, also insists that agnostics “lack imagination and miss the better story.” The better story of course is that God exists; and Life of Pi, which won Britain’s Man Booker Prize last year, and which describes for the most part how a sixteen-year-old Indian boy survived 227 days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, aims at least partly to prove this: not only that God exists (the dust jacket promises to “make you believe in God”) but also that the idea that he might is more attractive and useful than denying or doubting his presence.

Martel claims in an author’s note to Life of Pi that he was in India, struggling to write a novel set in Portugal, when he came across the story of Piscine or Pi: he was the son of a zookeeper, whose family, along with several animals, drowned in the Pacific Ocean while migrating to Canada in the mid-1970s, leaving him on a lifeboat with a tiger. An inquisitive, Martel-like writer appears often in the book in short italicized paragraphs; he describes tracking down Pi in Canada, and making him remember and narrate his extraordinary experience. But these multiple narrators and frames and the mixing of fact with fiction seem part of Martel’s attempt to provide a “better story” and shore up thereby his illusion of reality.

In his author’s note, he tersely acknowledges the Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar for providing him with “the spark of life,” but in later interviews he has elaborated on how the basic premise of Life of Pi came to him from a review he read years before of the English translation of Scliar’s novel Max and the Cats (1990), which has a few pages describing a young German man trapped on a lifeboat with a jaguar.*


The French-Canadian writer who, inspired by a Brazilian novel, conjures up a protagonist in South India suggests a bold internationalism. Not surprisingly, Martel gives to Pi an eclectic taste in religions. Although his Hindu parents are “as secular as ice-cream,” he embraces all the three religions—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity—available in Pondicherry. This is an inspired move, conscious or not, on Martel’s part: a majority of Indians, especially those living in villages and small towns, regularly defy the official census categories—Hindu, Muslim, Christian—they were born into by visiting temples, Sufi shrines, and churches with almost equal devotion.

Some of Martel’s descriptions of religious practices in India carry the whiff of an encyclopedia entry, or a tourist’s scrupulously kept journal. (“There is Brahman, the world soul…. I am a Hindu because of sculptured cones of red kumkum powder and baskets of yellow turmeric nuggets….”) But his sharp eye creates intimacy where his research falters. A Sufi mystic with the Hindu name of Satish Kumar may be as hard to find as a Southern American Baptist called Pervez Ahmed, but you are apt to forget about the incongruity when Martel shows the Sufi in his tiny bakery unfurling his prayer mat, and “throwing up a small storm of flour.”

Martel makes Pi believable by accumulating such details about his school, his father’s zoo, his brother’s obsession with cricket. He portrays a happy childhood, full of innocent wonder and devotion, and relatively untouched by the Indian realities of poverty and religious conflict. Pi’s sheltered, self-absorbed life in South India may help explain his tone, a graduate student– like mix of solemnity and jauntiness, which he shares with Martel’s Canadian narrators. “I was,” he says at one point, “fourteen years old—and a well-content Hindu—when I met Jesus Christ on a holiday.” “Why,” he exclaims, “Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise.” When a Christian priest, Muslim imam, and Hindu pandit together confront him with his improperly diverse religious beliefs, Pi quotes Gandhi—“all religions are true”—and adds, “I just want to love God.”

Such unreserved devotion to God is rarely seen in contemporary literary fiction, where religious belief, even in the work of a practicing Christian like John Updike, competes with, and is often overwhelmed by, everyday secular preoccupations (money, class, sexual love, politics), and where other-worldliness usually appears in the form of ghosts or other supernatural phenomena. Martel seems to be aware of this. He told Publisher’s Weekly in an interview last year that he was worried about how Life of Pi would be received in Canada, where, he claimed, “secularism is triumphant and to talk noncynically, nonironically about religion is strange.” He added that he had rearranged the “religious information” in the Canadian edition of the novel, while keeping it intact for readers in America, which he described as a “very religious, almost puritanical country.”

This may explain partly why Martel chose to dramatize his own disaffection with Western reason and secularism through a narrator from India, rather than, as in his previous fiction, from Canada. Four decades after Hermann Hesse became a sage of the countercultural 1960s, it seems exceedingly difficult for a contemporary novelist to revive his themes and treat without a mordant irony the middle-class Western character who, discontented with his civilization’s materialist outlook, turns into a seeker. Martel wasn’t wrong if he thought that a modern Indian teenager with a spiritual hunger may be more acceptable to his largely secular readers, more immune to their agnostic skepticism or mockery, since religion in India often appears from afar charmingly exotic, far from being the drab, private, almost surreptitious thing it is often reduced to among a sophisticated literature-reading public in Canada.

However, religion is respectable not just in India, and America, but also in large parts of the so-called “secular West,” where it assumes forms that borrow only very superficially from the “foundational texts” of Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity, which Martel claims to have read in preparation for writing Life of Pi. The new interest in religion is often driven, as in Martel’s case, by weariness with Western secularism and materialism, and nostalgia for an imagined pre-modern age of simplicity and spiritual wholeness.

These usually vague feelings and hopes can be found not only among Hindu immigrants in North America or Muslim immigrants in Europe—people who grow especially devout while in the West—but also among the millions of consumers of self-help books, mystical Persian poetry, and New Age literature. They are expressed by the middle-class antiglobalization protesters of Canada and Europe, and even inspire best-selling European composers of classical music like John Tavener and Arvo Pärt. Certainly, the relative success of Life of Pi in such supposed bastions of secularism and irony as Canada and Britain suggests that not all of Martel’s anxieties about being out of tune with the zeitgeist were justified.


In any case, religious matters abruptly recede from the novel after Pi’s father, who is fed up with Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial ways, decides to leave India. The Japanese ship taking Pi and his family and some animals to Canada sinks soon after leaving Manila. His family and their animals drown. Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, a tiger, a hyena, and an orangutan. Much of the zoological information Martel scattered early on in the book takes on a new precision and force as the hyena kills and eats the zebra, and then turns upon the orangutan, before being killed and eaten by the tiger.

It is not easy at first to imagine this mayhem taking place on a lifeboat, which is “three and a half feet deep, eight feet wide and twenty-six feet long, exactly.” But once free of the task of depicting South India and Indians, Martel appears wholly at ease with the barely imaginable and the unspeakable. Here is the hyena attacking the zebra:

It put its front legs on the zebra’s side, reached over the gathered fold of skin in its jaws. It pulled roughly. A strip of hide came off the zebra’s belly like gift-wrap paper comes off a gift, in smooth-edged swath, only silently, in the way of tearing skin, and with greater resistance…. It started pulling out coils of intestines and other viscera…. After devouring half the liver, it started tugging on the whitish, balloon-like stomach bag. But it was heavy, and with the zebra’s haunches being higher than its belly—and blood being slippery—the hyena started to slide into its victim. It plunged head and shoulders into the zebra’s guts, up to the knees of its front legs. It pushed itself out, only to slide back down. It finally settled in this position, half in, half out. The zebra was being eaten alive from the inside.

A series of such intensely vivid scenes involves us deeply in Pi’s fate as, for the next two hundred pages, he is left to deal with the 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker, to suffer seasickness and extreme weather, and to know the brutishness of life outside civilization. One reads on, both fascinated and appalled. When Pi lists the rations on the lifeboat—192 tablets of anti-seasickness medicine, 124 tin cans of fresh water, etc.—it has the same incantatory power as the roster of Lolita’s classmates that Humbert Humbert chances upon in Nabokov’s novel.

The rations soon run out; and Pi, a vegetarian, is forced to kill fish, to drink turtle blood, and, in a particularly bleak moment, to taste tiger shit. He learns to mark out his territory on the boat with urine, and to appease Richard Parker with regular supplies of food. He doesn’t reflect much on his religious past, or his progressive loss of humanity; he is preoccupied entirely by his desperate quest for survival. Months pass; but Pi doesn’t notice. Indeed, as he says, “I survived because I forgot even the very notion of time.”

He does have a heightened sense of the vast world that encloses him, which Martel’s brisk conversational prose evokes most effectively:

Once there was lightning. The sky was so black, day looked like night. The downpour was heavy. I heard thunder far away. I thought it would stay at that. But a wind came up, throwing the rain this way and that. Right after, a white splinter came crashing down from the sky, puncturing the water. It fell some distance from the lifeboat, but the effect was perfectly visible. The water was shot through with what looked like white roots; briefly, a great celestial tree stood in the ocean.

Later, toward the end of his journey, Pi runs into a blind French castaway. He talks to him at some length about food, and then watches the tiger kill and consume his recent guest. He also discovers a large island made up of algae and full of meerkats. Martel describes both of Pi’s last encounters with the same exactness that he has brought to other improbable events in the book. By the time Pi reaches dry ground in Mexico, where the tiger promptly disappears, Martel’s grasp of zoological and botanical information seems so sure and his ability to evoke a sense of wonder so dazzling that it is hard not to be absorbed by Pi’s story. Close to the end of the novel, the reader is fully on Pi’s side and looks with smug impatience upon the Japanese officials who are trying to find out from Pi what happened to the Japanese ship he was traveling on, and who refuse at first to believe that he survived 227 days on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger.

Faced with doubtful Japanese officials, Pi spins out quickly a more plausible story, turning the animals into human beings. He then asks his interviewers, “Which story do you prefer?” They reply that “the story with animals is the better story.” Pi replies, a bit sententiously, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

It seems then that having stretched our credulity through some hypnotic storytelling, Martel wishes now to enlarge our religious beliefs. He wants us to give serious thought to the matter of God: how he both exists and is part of a better story. Soon after his ship sank, Pi had said that “had I considered my prospects in the light of reason I surely would have given up.” Martel wants us to consider it a miracle that Pi reaches Mexico just after he, feeling “bereft and desperate” and “in the throes of unremitting suffering,” turned to God.

But miracles and abrupt religious conversions convince even less often in fiction than they do in real life. It is also arguable that neither God nor the better story was of much practical use to Pi during his ordeal. In fact, Martel himself is careful not to impose too many reflections about God and religion upon Pi, who barely has the time to grieve for his dead parents and brother. Martel seems to know that a body in pain such as Pi’s senses nothing but itself. It is to his credit that after throwing Pi into the grim struggle for survival he makes him lead, for much of the novel, a purely biological existence, in which every action is either useful or not, and has no moral or religious meaning beyond its principle of utility.

But this also means that Martel is unable to reveal adequately, after the flurry of colorful religious information in the early pages, the precise nature, or vacillations, of Pi’s faith. Clearly, the big questions about life and morality that any discussion of God provokes are as irrelevant to Pi on his lifeboat as they usually are in the animal kingdom, where consciousness appears to exist only in order to help the basic tasks of survival and procreation. They emerge most strongly where human beings face everyday, and so have to find both private and collective solutions to, the problems of living together on an overcrowded planet.

Pi’s appeal finally lies not so much in what he makes of the matter of God as in the exhilarating, largely secular fantasy he embodies: the fantasy of escaping briefly from what one of Martel’s narrators calls the “insipidity, comfort and insularity” of highly organized, modern societies, of becoming the first and only man in the world, and mastering, through personal ingenuity, indifferent nature and one’s own destiny. The fantasy, which is also available in much survival and endurance literature, works to allay the helplessness and tedium and also the “spiritual hunger” felt by many people living in a technology-driven, increasingly complex world.

This is the world, based upon science and reason, which human beings began to make once they freed themselves from the power of religion. Martel does not tell us how we could relearn faith in it. Nor does he dramatize how hard it is to find clear answers to such questions. He wishes to use a tale of survival to alert us to the likely benefits of faith in God. As it turns out, his instincts as a storyteller prove to be keener than his ability to proselytize. For, by rendering faithfully Pi’s vulnerable state on the lifeboat, he ends up affirming life as biology, with God featuring as a not always useful aesthetic consolation (“a better story”), or as a last-minute deus ex machina, which saves Pi just in time for a new life in multicultural Canada.

Part of the reason for Martel’s unpersuasive treatment of God may lie with his somewhat born again–ish theology, which confines religion to what the narrator of Self calls “the possibility of salvation at a crucial moment.” It is as if God exists mostly in order to help, rather than complicate, the individual’s lonely pursuit of happiness in a world full of similarly engaged and lonely individuals.

Religion in this vision begins to seem more an accessory to contemporary lifestyles than an ethic through which one might reevaluate the way we live now. It does not appear to have emerged out of any great moral, spiritual, or even political dilemmas, such as those that in the past led the Christians to stress compassion, the Muslims egalitarianism, and the Hindus and Buddhists self-awareness and renunciation. “These are terribly old-fashioned things you have taken to,” Pi’s secular mother tells her son when he declares his attraction to religion. But Martel’s own attitude toward these old-fashioned things appears very much up-to-the-minute, part of the New Age, where religion itself is often a higher and glossier form of materialism.

This Issue

March 27, 2003