I’ve been avoiding Yann Martel’s Life of Pi since it was published. It’s nothing personal. I avoid stories “that will make you believe in God” (x*) like a person with a peanut allergy in a Thai restaurant. I finally caved when a colleague at my university’s English department pushed it on me and told me that the narrator is unreliable.
For the few people who haven’t read Life of Pi and have managed to miss the movie, the book tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel. Pi was traveling with his family to Canada from Pondicherry, India, by cargo ship—along with many of the inmates of their zoo—when it sunk between Manila and Midway Island. Pi was lost at sea for months with only a 450 pound Bengal Tiger for company.
Pi’s story is narrated by an unnamed writer who was trying to write another book before hearing about Pi. The writer tracked Pi down in Canada and recorded the survivor’s tale. Pi begins in Pondicherry and the family zoo. As a child, Pi was always seeking the feeling of the holy. He was raised Hindu and considers himself to be Hindu, but he also practiced Christianity and Islam. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Pi’s three teachers (a pandit, a priest, and an imam) find out about each other and get into a fight about Pi needed to choose one religion and stick to it.
The beginning of the book led me to expect that religion would play a bigger role in the story than it did. Though Pi credits his survival to God, he tends to use his reason to explain events—the algae island, for one—that another believer would call miracles. It’s never stated in the book as such, but I wonder if Pi’s early interfaith studies led him to a more basic form of belief. He lives on hope as much as he does fish and distilled water. His hope might founder, but Pi managed to soldier on.
For me, the least interesting part of the book was when Pi and the tiger were lost at sea. The first part had me hooked and the ending was brilliant. I was on guard for magical thinking through the whole of Pi’s ordeal. I wrote notes in the margins when I thought Pi might be hallucinating or when “miracles” happened. There are parts of the story that are just unbelievable, as the two Japanese investigators point out at the end of the book. The tiger, for example. When other readers described Life of Pi to me, I got the impression that the book was allegorical. I was looking out for metaphors as much as I was looking for magical thinking.
There are hints early in the book that Pi is not the most reliable of narrators. Who would be, after the physical hardship of being lost at sea for months? But the writer comments near the beginning of his interviews that “Memory is an ocean and [Pi] bobs on its surface” (42). Even the writer is aware that he is getting the bare details of Pi’s story. The writer’s comment also led me to think that even Pi himself doesn’t know the whole story. When Pi tells a briefer, more realistic story to the Japanese investigators after they refuse to believe his story about Richard Parker the tiger, he asks them, “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” (317). The investigators quickly agree that the story with animals is better. As readers, we have to answer Pi’s question, too. Do we prefer the story of human betrayal and misery? The bare facts? Or would we rather believe the story of triumph over adversity and pure heroism?
Pi’s question harks back to two characters he introduces us to at the beginning of the book: Mr. Kumar the biology teacher and Mr. Kumar the Muslim baker. The two Kumars represent reason and religion, two ideologies that are usually painted as irreconcilable opposites. And yet, the two men were able to stand side by side and feed a zebra. They had two different approaches, but the end result was the same. The chapter has a simple conclusion, so simple that it’s easy to miss the significance of this brief bit of dialog:
Mr. Kumar said, “Equus burchelli boehmi.”
Mr. Kumar said, “Allahu akbar.”
I said, “It’s very pretty.”
We looked on. (84)
Unlike everyone else, Pi never has a problem reconciling all the contradictory worldviews. His answer to his own question is that there can be more than one story. After all, he points out, “Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?” (302).
At the end of Life of Pi, I have the choice of what to take away from the story. For me, this is not a story that makes me believe in god or religion. For me, Life of Pi is about the point of stories to shape our perspectives. Though I might be an atheist, I am a firm believer in the power of story.
* Quotes are from the 2001 trade paperback edition by Mariner Books.