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  • On the Migration of Pi:Toward a Rhetoric of Identification
  • Jen-chieh Tsai


“We’ll sail like Columbus!” (111) announces Pi’s father to his family in the book Life of Pi by Canadian writer Yann Martel. His plan is to migrate from India to Canada for the sake of fleeing from the political mayhem in India in the mid-1970s. Gloomily, Pi counters: “He was hoping to find India…” (111). This contrast between excitement and nonchalance, shown by father and son, points right away to the identity complications experienced by subalterns. More indicative of this is the fact that Pi and his family should embrace the agency of European travelers, and assume the hegemonic pose that has fashioned Western imperialism. “Travel” then becomes a convoluted concept that is anything but neutral or romantic; it instead implies negligence and dominance over differences. It is, so to speak, a master-slave narrative. However, as diasporic conditions inform common experiences in the postmillennial chronotope, moments of encountering differences vis-à-vis the consequent problematics of addressing the Other bespeak the exigency of the need to consider an ethics capable of reaching commonality. In light of this, with Life of Pi released following the turn of the second millennium, Pi’s migration is a timely reflection on the language of conquest inherent in journeys documented in the long tradition of travel literature. This reflection is immediately clear because, not long after Pi’s family sets out on their journey, the cargo ship they depart on sinks in the Pacific Ocean, thus proving his father’s Columbian expedition to be untenable. The study that follows will argue that Martel’s novel, through its reflection on the tradition of travel literature, exemplifies Kenneth Burke’s idea of rhetoric, a rhetoric of identification that better tackles ever-changing differences in the postmillennial context. [End Page 94]

Pis Migration: Beyond Conventional Models

Based on the analytical model used in Barbara Korte’s study of English travel writing from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, travel literature can be viewed from two major perspectives. In the first, some writers explore travel by using an object-oriented approach. They claim to represent the world “authentically” and “empirically” (Korte 17); and, if necessary, the object of travel can be verified under the aegis of “a credible eyewitness account” (31). This approach is readily discernible in accounts by explorers with anthropological and scientific concerns. The first chapter of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, as discussed in Korte’s study, serves as an example of such focused attention to objects observed on expeditions (38). In the second major perspective, some writers adopt a subject-oriented approach, highlighting the traveler’s own experiences, feelings, growth, enculturation, and so on (17). The Grand Tour exemplifies this self-exploration (or self-empowerment) of subjects during travel. This kind of tour, as Korte explains, means “to add—after the traveller’s student years—the finishing touches to his education and the process of his socialization” (42). Subject-oriented travel writing, therefore, is self-reflective and aims to complete the traveler’s selfhood.

In Korte’s criticism, these two approaches are nonetheless problematic because they do not actually signify negotiations with the Other. Objects of travel can be identified and recorded in their pristine state, but one may question just how “pristine” that state can be. The complacent traveler wields the overarching instrument of reason and thinks he is able to present the genuineness of objects. Yet, he glosses over the fact that truths derive from constructions “on the part of the perceiver, who defines the country’s Otherness against his or her own sense of identity, his or her own familiar contexts” (20). Foreignness is therefore, at best, the traveler’s own projection. The objects logged remain “slippery,” “relational,” and “relative” (20).

Likewise, the subject-oriented approach displays a similar specious concern for the Other. Korte indicates that subjects of the English Grand Tour travel in order to collect “all kinds of knowledge that could be potentially useful for England or Britain and its relationship with other nations” (43). Thus, the purpose of the tour is plainly...


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pp. 94-106
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