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God, the devil, and the deep blue sea

Novelist Yann Martel talks matters of faith in 'Life of Pi'

By Todd Leopold

Yann Martel
Yann Martel

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(CNN) -- A precocious Indian boy, invested with a deep sense of spirituality, sets sail with his parents, brother and their collection of zoo animals on a ship bound from India to Canada. The ship goes down, and the boy is left on a lifeboat with a handful of animals.

Eventually, just one animal remains with the boy: a large tiger named Richard Parker. Rather than become opponents, the two establish a relationship and sail the Pacific for 227 days, barely surviving, before finally washing ashore in Mexico.

Or maybe not. Maybe something else happened. Maybe the experience was so horrific the boy doesn't know what the truth is. Maybe it's just what he'd rather believe.

It was that idea of parallel tales, coupled with the concept of belief, that attracted novelist Yann Martel to the subject matter of "Life of Pi" (Harcourt). The book weaves stories of Indian culture, perceptions of religion and evil, and a survival tale worthy of Robinson Crusoe into a sturdy, thoughtful mix told largely through the eyes of a character named Piscine Molitor Patel.

"Life of Pi" has struck a nerve in the United States and overseas. The book has been published in 17 countries and is on the shortlist to receive Great Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. The Booker is scheduled to be announced Tuesday, and by some reports, Martel is the odds-on favorite to win.

Which isn't bad, considering the book arose from Martel's own existential crisis -- one not quite as dramatic as the experience of his hero but terrifying nonetheless.

'All the ideas came together'

Martel, 39, had started work on a new book in 1996. His previous book had failed critically and financially, and he restlessly turned to another idea, a story set in 1939 Portugal. As he was working on it in India -- attempting to get away from it all -- he realized that idea was going nowhere.

"I was wondering what to do with my life," he recalled in an interview from Germany. He lives in Berlin and recently attended the Frankfurt Book Fair.

'All the ideas came together'

He remembered a Brazilian novel from the late '80s. The book was about a family of Jews who ran a zoo in 1933 Berlin and fled to Brazil, only to have their boat sink in the Atlantic.

Actually, what Martel remembered was a negative review of the book by John Updike, who didn't like the heavy-handedness of the work. But something about the premise stuck with Martel, and as he traveled through India, wondering what to do next, he remembered that plot.

"And all the ideas came together," he said.

One idea Martel wanted to work with was faith: the hero's ability to persevere -- even give thanks -- despite all his hardships. Martel himself had to learn about religion pretty much from scratch, he said.

"My background is completely secular," he said, noting he grew up the son of Canadian diplomats and came of age during Quebec's "Quiet Revolution," a period of time when the province was abandoning its insularity, creating several social programs and exercising the influence of its majority French-speaking population. By his mid-30s, as a result of the experience of his second book, "I felt like I was running on empty," he said.

With the character of Pi, he continued, "I said I wanted to look at religion a bit. I wanted to see a way of looking at evil. ... Most people know just enough to reject [faith], but I thought, 'What is it like to have faith?' "

Martel studied the histories of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity and attended church regularly. In the book, Pi befriends Catholic, Muslim and Hindu clerics and wonders why, if each religion's path leads to the belief of a supreme being, the religions themselves are often at odds -- particularly as he drifts through the Pacific with only the tiger for company, kind of a modern Noah with a touch of Job.

Martel now characterizes himself as "spiritual, even religious," though not in an "on-my-knees" sense. "My approach is a fifth column approach. I come at it from the inside," he said.

'The last thing on my list'

Though not a native, he feels a kinship with India -- its mix of cultures, religions and humanity.

start quoteMost people know just enough to reject [faith], but I thought, 'What is it like to have faith?' end quote
-- Yann Martel

The first time he went, he recalled, "I was just following a woman. I went there knowing nothing about it. ... But you step out of the plane in Delhi and a wall of humidity hits you. I said, 'Wow.' It just thrilled me."

Martel is equally at home with the big philosophical concepts of "Life of Pi," but he is surprised to have found himself a fiction writer. Up through his college years, he intended to go into some aspect of politics. "Writing was the last thing on my list," he said.

However, not long after he'd switched his field of study to philosophy, he realized he was nearing a dead end, and the last thing on his list turned out to be a welcome relief. He wrote a "really bad" play one night but was thrilled with the process of creating, and soon he was turning out more plays and some short stories.

Eventually, a friend gave one of his short stories to a literary magazine, and Martel was on his way.

With his name on the Booker shortlist, bigger things may be in store. Martel was overjoyed with the nomination.

"When I found out, I was delighted. I was wordlessly thrilled," he said. He rated his chances as "pretty good." But he added, "We'll see."

Words of little faith? From Yann Martel, probably not.

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