Conversation: Life of Pi

November 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: This year’s Booker Prize, the British equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, went to Canadian writer Yann Martel for his book, “Life of Pi.” It’s a tale of adventure and survival. A 16-year-old boy is shipwrecked with a tiger and other animals. The book is Martel’s second novel. He’s also the author of a collection of short stories. He lives in Montreal. Welcome to the program.

YANN MARTEL, Author, “Life of Pi:” Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Tell us about Pi Patel.

YANN MARTEL: He is the son of zookeepers in India, and it’s mid-70s. And business isn’t good because of politics, so they decide to emigrate to Canada. And since most of their animals are going to zoos in the United States, they decide to travel on the same ship. Alas, the ship sinks, and Pi ends up in a life boat with a tiger, an orangutan, a zebra, and a hyena.

RAY SUAREZ: And lives to tell the tale?

YANN MARTEL: And lives the tell the tale. That’s the beginning of a 227-day odyssey. Quickly, there’s only Pi and the tiger left, and so the central part of the novel is how Pi gets along with the tiger.

RAY SUAREZ: That idea of someone shipwrecked with an animal, how did that come to you?

YANN MARTEL: Several ways. The premise came to me from reading a review of a Brazilian novel by a man named Moacyr Scliar, which I read about 12 years ago. And it struck me that that’s a good premise, I could do something with that. Then I forgot about it. And then, about seven years later, I was in India, and India is a country with a lot of animals and a lot of religion. And I was a bit lost there, too. I was sort of wondering, “What am I doing in life? I’ve written two books, but they haven’t really done well.” So I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small “s,” but sort of with a capital “s”– something that would direct my life. And while I was there, I remembered that premise, and I sort of said, “man, I could really do something. Here, I’ll tell my own story.”

And suddenly, all these ideas started coming together. And the main thing that struck me is the idea of a religious boy– because we have to say that Pi is a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian– the idea of a religious boy in a lifeboat with a wild animal struck me as a perfect metaphor for the human condition. Humans aspire to really high things, right, like religion, justice, democracy. At the same time, we’re rooted in our human, animal condition. And so, all of those brought together in a lifeboat struck me as being… as a perfect metaphor.

RAY SUAREZ: So Moacyr Scliar’s German in a boat with a panther becomes your Indian in a boat with a tiger?

YANN MARTEL: Yeah. The germ of the idea is the same, but what we do with those stories are totally, totally different. His is set, I believe… and I haven’t read the book, but it’s set in 1933. It’s a Jew. It’s a black panther. It’s clearly an allegory of the Holocaust. Mine is, as I said… the religious element is very important. It’s more about religion, faith, storytelling. There are two completely different stories that happen to be about a boy in a lifeboat with a wild animal.

RAY SUAREZ: Scliar himself has said that he agrees with you, that the books are very different. But has that issue sort of obscured what you’ve done with Pi Patel, and having to talk about it? Has that changed the experience of what should be a pretty good month for you?

YANN MARTEL: It’s tempest in a teapot. We forget that ideas… you know, ideas spread by being shared. This idea of an animal in that small space, you know, we can trace it back to Noah’s Ark. There’s a Fellini movie in which there’s a scene with a man in a lifeboat with a rhinoceros. I think there are many stories to be told. Mr. Scliar told one story; I tell another one. So I think this issue will fade. These scandals, I don’t know where they come from, and they quickly vanish, so I think it’s a tempest in a teapot.

RAY SUAREZ: In your introduction, you do give a tip of the hat to Scliar. Do you wish you had been a little bit more clear about why the tip of the hat?

YANN MARTEL: No, not really, because my novel is about the line between fiction and fact. It is about how we interpret reality, right? Reality isn’t just out there; it’s how we interpret it. And to me, that’s what religion is about, isn’t it? It’s an interpretation of reality. And since I want to blur that division, I didn’t want to outright say, “By the way, I borrowed this premise from this novel,” because that would make it more difficult for me to make the reader suspend his or her disbelief. So that’s why I just tipped my hat by saying, “and the spark of life to Mr. Scliar.”

RAY SUAREZ: But then you wouldn’t have had to talk about it as much, probably.

YANN MARTEL: Well, that’s it. I realize I’m paying the price of being scrupulously honest. But, whatever. As I said, tempest in a teapot. It’ll go away, and the book will remain.

RAY SUAREZ: At a time when people, the world after September 11, are talking a lot, or at least more, about where religions run in to each other, where they hold the same things true, where they don’t, it’s also a bit chancy to make someone a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim at the same time.

YANN MARTEL: Yeah, except that if you look at religion, what’s remarkable is how the mystics of each religion speak the same language. So if you look at the Muslim mystics, the Sufis; if you look at Christian mystics, like St. John of the Cross; and Hindu mystics, it’s remarkable how they all speak the same language, which is a language of a personal relationship with god and a language of love, where God is love.

It’s once you get further away from the mystics that you start getting differences, which sometime seem unbridgeable. Now, I think those unbridgeable differences are due to dogmas, and sometimes dogmas stray very far way from faith. And the other key thing to point out, too, is that you can kidnap anything, including very good ideas, so there is nothing in Islam that justifies killing innocent people, and yet some Muslims will do that in the name of Islam; just as there are some Christian fundamentalists, for example, here in America who will kill doctors who perform abortions. There’s nothing in Christianity that in any way condones that.

In fact, it’s funny you should mention September 11, because my book came out in Canada precisely on that day, September 11, 2001. I was in New York on September 10 meeting my British and American editors, and I flew out because I had to be in Toronto for the launch of my book. And in a way, I don’t mind that, because I think it’s precisely…I don’t want to make great claims for my book, but it’s precisely works of art that will bridge differences created by fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden.

RAY SUAREZ: While writing the book, did you have to do a lot of work to understand, A., religion, and B., animals?

YANN MARTEL: Yeah, I did a lot of research. I like doing research. So I read the foundational texts of Hinduism, of Islam, of Christianity. I read secondary texts on them. I read books on zoo biology and animal psychology. I read loads of castaway stories. It was wonderful. It was wonderful. But they all came together very well, and I think one of the qualities of the book is that it carried the research quite lightly. It doesn’t seem like a book where I’m flogging, you know, facts. They all came together in a quite seamless way. And it was really rich. That’s one thing that was a discovery, was in fact reading these foundational texts, of which I had sort of a superficial knowledge, like the odd little bit — to have read them systematically, they are truly extraordinary texts, very complicated. The gospels are amazing texts. They’re very, very rich. They’re really very short. You know, the shortest gospel, the Book of Mark, I think in some editions is only 26 pages long, and yet it goes so deep. And the same thing with the Baghavad Gita, with the Koran. They’re really, really deep texts.

RAY SUAREZ: So you now you find yourself, what, understanding religious people better?

YANN MARTEL: Yes, I do. Yes. I come from a very secular background. Canada– and Quebec in particular, the province where I live– is a very, very secular province. And it’s funny, I realize people who reject religion or are very cynical about it usually know just enough about a religion to be able to dismiss it. So they only know the exaggerations, the excesses of that religion. In a sense, what a lot of us do with Islam, we only notice the bad things about it. We don’t realize the good things that are happening with it. So now that I’ve suspended my cynicism, now that I’ve put aside my criticism let’s say of organized religion and gone to the texts, yes, I do see more of where they’re coming from.

RAY SUAREZ: Yann Martel, thanks a lot.

YANN MARTEL: Thank you.