I must admit, I’ve always found identifying book and film genres excruciatingly challenging, because of my indecisive nature. And Yann Martel hardly aided me in learning how to do so efficiently with ‘Life of Pi’, as the novel itself mingles complicatedly between fiction and non-fiction. I will have to take a guess that this specific genre is called ‘Magical Realism’, which is also the dominant one.
Basically, Magical Realism is where magical and surreal elements are imported into a kind of realistic and logical environment. To set an example, in the classic ‘Les Misérables’, Jean Valjean is described to have a strength that surpasses humans, being able to lift an entire loading cart by himself, while the story itself is set in a very historically correct period of the great French revolution. Correspondingly, in Life of Pi, though having taken place in a real Indian historical event called The Emergency, there were various hyper-realistic aspects which existed throughout its story, for instance the entire carnivorous island, or the boy surviving 227 days on a lifeboat with a bengal tiger.
Another book of the same genre, controversially with an extremely similar synopsis, is ‘Max and the Cats’ by Moacyr Scliar, which tells the story of a man named Max stranded at sea with a panther. Scliar’s story has no clear indication at any point whether Max’s story was true or not, so as a result, readers have to wonder to themselves if they should believe in his words or their logical thinking. Meanwhile, Martel borrowed the words of his own character at the beginning to express that the story about to be told was indeed factually accurate, hence hypnotizing us all into subconsciously believing in Pi’s every word, following his breath-taking journey without a single moment of doubt. It wasn’t until the very end that reality was brought back to us suddenly through two incredibly skeptical reporters, who forced him to tell a different version of the story, replacing all animals with humans. This credibility is a major difference between the two novels, also between ‘Life of Pi’ and other books of the same genre.
One good aspect in this field is, as mentioned before, the overall feeling of credibility within this story. The way that Martel planted an idea of a false truth inside our heads through his character at the beginning was truly magnificent and sneaky, as there is really no way of telling the psychological effect one small detail has until you’ve re-read the novel a second time.
Another notable feature of the novel is its main character – Pi himself. Piscine Molitor Patel is meant to be just like any other ordinary Indian boys of his time, but as a matter of fact, his positive characteristics are anything but that. Having been raised by a father who owned a zoo, he was practically attached to the animals as though they were his own flesh and blood, gradually forming inside him a kind and caring heart for all animals, even a Bengal tiger – Richard Parker.
Moreover, the issues within India’s spirituality at the time is excellently reflected in Pi’s unique trait: extreme and over-the-top religiousness. Born and raised as a Hindu, Pi eventually discovered not one, but two other religions: Islam and Christianity, both in the same city. Although each religion has its own gods or goddesses, he convinced himself to devote himself to all three equally, which further emphasizes the ridiculous faith situation in India.
One more trait of his is an astounding bravery and resolve like no other, realistic yet fantastical. Said trait is best demonstrated through his adventures at sea. Though having just lost the entire zoo along with his animal friends and his whole family in the sunken cargo ship, not only does he not feel too depressed to continue living, but Pi chose to cling onto whatever he could, tried his hardest to survive the ordeal, and made an effort to save some animals as well. One disaster after another, the animals he saved were gradually killed off one-by-one, until there was only Richard Parker left. Nevertheless, he still didn’t give up on life, developed a kind of odd relationship with the tiger, survived 227 days on a lifeboat with it, and came back alive. Truly extraordinary strength, yet from an ordinary boy.
Last but not least, the ending twist, where Pi told the two reporters a different, more normal and believable story after being persuaded, replacing all animals with corresponding humans. This particular detail is quite unique, because it forces its readers to realize how unrealistic the entire story had been, yet still ponder whether to let themselves indulge in the wondrous tale of animals and gods’ miracles, or logically limit their imaginations to the scientific and tragic story.
In this novel, Martel utilizes perfectly uncomplicated and easy-going language, which allows Life of Pi’s audience to absorb the work more easily. Since he doesn’t aim at a specific targeted reader, his word choice can be firmly assessed as extremely informal, plain and straightforward. He also makes incredible use of mundane occurrences to draw parallels, so as to make his ideas even more perceivable.
Just like how a tiger plays with its prey, Martel plays with the readers by switching constantly between simple and complex sentence structures, obliterating any existing blandness in the novel. Because this is a chronologically linked story told in first-person narrative, Martel uses hypotactic statements, and rapidly alter from finite to non-finite clause with the aim of allowing a smoother and simpler storyline.