My first encounter with Life of Pi began one June afternoon in 2003 – near where the wet greens of Missouri meet the turbulent golds of the Great Plains. I was on a road trip from Atlanta to Denver, alone except for the audio version of Pi which I had rented at a Cracker Barrel near Clarksville, Tennessee.
Kansas is a universe of black asphalt and wheat crops. If you have ever driven across it, you will appreciate how the gift of a story well told made all the difference. For ten hours Martel’s storytelling held me, black asphalt and wheat crops notwithstanding. What is most remarkable to me about that first experience is how vividly the story has stayed with me. In part, its enduring immediacy arises out of the first person point of view of a sixteen-year-old Hindu-Christian-Muslim but it is more than that. It is the encyclopedic knowledge of animals and their habits that has followed me from Kansas. Annie Dillard was the first writer to do that for me. She described the death march of silk processionaries, the staggering gait of a crippled polyphemus moth, the cannibalistic love rites of praying mantis and scorched those images into my being. Martel, with another voice and another genre, creates the same intimate proximity to the natural world. A dense blue spray of flying fish, the Eden-like meerkats of an algae island, and a starving tiger named Richard Parker now play within my internal landscape. Very few stories affect me that way.
My second encounter with Life of Pi came this December shortly after the publication of the illustrated version. I read the text while waiting in the emergency department of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital. My ten hour journey with Pi from Missouri to Colorado became my ten hour sojourn in the borderland of urban emergency medical care. I completed the book around one in the morning next to the nurse’s station, surrounded by gurneys, chirping cardiac equipment and the remains of a turkey on white bread sandwich. If you have waited for hours in a hospital emergency room, you will appreciate how the gift of a story well told made all the difference, gurneys and chirping equipment notwithstanding.
What these two experiences share is the transformative effect Pi had on me and my reality. But it does not stop there. As I write now, both the story and the experience of the story continue to evolve for me. Story is a living thing which has the power to transform and to be transformed. This is a truth which is clearer to me now, thanks to a Kansas highway, a hospital waiting room and uninterrupted hours with Life of Pi.
* Martel offers an explanation for the naming of the tiger: a clerical error at the time of the tiger cub’s capture and transport. There is another dimension: an Old Testament tradition centering around the naming of animals and humanity’s dominion over them.
It was only after encountering the story a second time, however, that I found a third explanation for the naming of the tiger. Richard Parker was a cabin boy who was stranded on a lifeboat in 1884 with three other crew members. Faced with imminent death by starvation, two of the crew members murdered Parker and all three survivors fed on the body until help arrived four days later. The authorities charged the two crew members who killed Parker with murder (R. v. Dudley and Stephens). Though convicted of murder, the Queen ultimately pardoned them.