Faith is a boat. Crafted to be seaworthy, but sometimes damaged along its journey. In the novel Life of Pi, Yann Martel tells a story of a young boy named Pi Patel, drifting in the Pacific Ocean with little but his faith. Through profound storytelling, Martel delivers a fantastical tale of survival and perseverance. He incorporates three elements of magical realism: plenitude, the fusion of two worlds, and metafiction, to explore the depth of Pi’s existential crisis. Imagination is challenged and belief is tested as Martel dares us to embark on this wondrous journey of chosen believability.
One element of magical realism seen in the Life of Pi is plenitude or the extraordinary abundance of disorienting yet sometimes wondrous detail. By adding lengthy descriptions of plenitude to describe magical occurrences, Martel succeeds at making scenarios even more intriguing and surprising than they already are. Pi’s discovery of “an exceptional botanical discovery” is one of the most surreal sections of the novel. After being stranded for a grueling 277 days, it is shocking in itself that Pi would find land. Even Pi himself thinks it is a hallucination until he sets foot on not soil, but dense algae. The miracles continue as Pi explores and discovers a vast population of meerkats, freshwater ponds and forests of endless green. Martel easily could have written, “Pi devoured the algae,” and gone on with the story, but instead, he writes, “My tongue began to tremble as if it were a finger flipping through a dictionary, trying to find a long-forgotten word. I found it, and my eyes closed with pleasure at hearing it: sweet. Not as in good, but as in sugary…The algae had a light sweetness that oudid in delight even the sap of our maple trees here in Canada…Saliva forcefully oozed through the dry pastiness of my mouth”. Martel’s description of Pi’s first bite of the delectable algae is unforgettable. He forces imagery and the satisfaction of sweetness in the reader’s mind, though we are not the ones experiencing it. The reader is so drawn in by this description, that we forget to ever doubt the plausibility of the situation. An island made entirely of edible algae, perfect for a malnourished and dying Pi, it truly is unusually magical. The whole island is a disorienting utopia that can not be explained or understood.
Yann Martel also delivers severely dehumanizing descriptions. In times of desperation, these details can actually bring out the beauty in certain circumstances. Pi’s life at sea is filled with days of pure despair and distress, but one element of the sea seems to genuinely encourage Pi- this is the natural beauty that surrounds him. Martel treats us with flashes of magnificence that remind us and Pi of the beauty of animal life, and he does this with extraordinary details. When Pi kills the dorado, Martel writes, “The dorado did a most extraordinary thing as it died: it began to flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death”. Even with such a cruel act of beheading a fish, Martel succeeds at describing it in a way that makes it beautiful. Martel uses the power of magic to turn suffering into something that “shimmers beautifully”. This explosion of intense beauty at a time one would almost expect the opposite disorients the unexpecting reader while also giving them a pleasant surprise. Martel communicates that even in the most demoralizing situations of Pi’s existential crisis, one can still seek out beauty.
The fusion of two worlds, the fantastical animal world, and the human world is another element of magical realism Martel uses. He does this to communicate Pi’s mental journey through his relationship with Richard Parker. At the beginning of the novel, Pi explores his philosophy on freedom, “Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations”. While most people think holding animals in captivity as limiting their quality of life, Pi argues that animals, like humans, live constrained by primal needs for food, water, and shelter. This concept Pi illustrates is exemplified again when he is stranded on the lifeboat. The differences between the two, man and tiger, start disappearing. Being a vegetarian, Pi is horrified at the idea of killing one of the earth’s beautiful creatures: “Several times I started bringing the hatchet down, but I couldn’t complete the action. Such sentimentalism may seem ridiculous considering what I had witnessed in the last days, but those were the deeds of others, of predatory animals. I suppose I was partly responsible for the rat’s death, but I’d only thrown it; it was Richard Parker who had killed it. A lifetime of peaceful vegetarianism stood between me and the willful beheading of a fish”. At first, Pi cannot bear killing the flying fish as he is an avowed vegetarian and considers it a cruel and inhumane act. He hints that only “predatory animals” like Richard Parker are capable of such a crime. Pi grows desperate and hungry and realizes he must break his most sacred standard for living in order to survive. These “animalistic” actions resemble those of Richard Parker.
Martel makes the literary decision to include a tiger in Pi’s journey, hoping the reader recognizes that this “challenge” is actually his primal self. Richard Parker is a physical representation of Pi’s own desperation and fear. Pi tries to tame Richard Parker, but soon his fear of him turns to appreciation when he admits, “If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker. He kept him from thinking too much about my family and my tragic circumstances. He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it, yet at the same time I was grateful”. Martel communicates the idea that fear can help us become fearless. Pi’s dependency on Richard Parker throughout his journey morphs his perception of him to the point where he looks at him with fondness in spite of the tiger’s nightmarish existence. His desperation and fear, as embodied by Richard Parker, keeps him focused and determined during his existential crisis. Martel uses magical realism to blur the worlds of animals and humans to tell the story of Pi’s growth.
Martel uses metafiction to challenge the reader to accept implausibility. Many magical elements take the story out of reality: the seemingly utopian island and the entire idea of surviving 227 days on a boat with a Bengal tiger…all are just too magical. But because Martel has framed this story to be a true one, we don’t question the outlandishness. Near the end of the novel, our faith is tested with a dramatic turn. Two Japanese investigators ask Pi for a more realistic story; voicing the thoughts of the readers they say: “We have difficulty believing it”. The investigator’s resistance, shown by their questioning of the story with animals, reveals Martel’s use of metafiction. This resistance to believability emphasizes and dramatizes the confrontation between fiction and reality. We are then presented with two versions of the same story where a brutal hyena is a malevolent cook, a timid zebra is a young sailor and an orangutan is Pi’s protective mother. Now, the story we have been as accepting whole-heartedly true seems rather fictional. Martel has cast a feeling of unsettling doubt as we try to reconcile the contradictory understandings of the two stories. The grim story in which the animals have been replaced with humans, seems much more feasible, however, the animal story blinds us to the cruelty of humans. Pi explains, “In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer”. Pi presents the idea that both stories hold truth. Whichever story the reader chooses to believe in, they soon come to realize with a simple question, that the reason Martel introduced the second story was to strengthen the reader’s belief in the power of faith and the fantastical. Pi asks the question, “Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without the animals?”. It’s easier to believe in the cruelty and brutality of humans rather than in magical animals. Just like how it’s easier to believe that God doesn’t exist, rather than have faith in something one can not necessarily explain. So in choosing the story with the tiger, the reader also chooses to have faith and thus, believe in God. Martel’s novel is metafictional, in which opposite versions of Pi’s journey compete for the reader’s credence.
In the novel Life of Pi, Yann Martel incorporates three elements of magical realism: plenitude, the fusion of two worlds, and metafiction, to explore the depth of Pi’s existential crisis. Martel’s use of extraordinary detail treats the reader to disorienting yet magical surprises. In order to survive, Pi used his animalistic base instincts and fear, both embodied by Richard Parker, to help him through his journey. Martel introduces a more realistic story, making readers question the meaning and plausibility of the animal story. It is whether or not one “stumbles upon mere believability” that decides if they can have faith in the strength and perseverance of man in seemingly impossible scenarios.