A boy. A tiger. And the vast Pacific Ocean. This is a novel of such rare and wondrous storytelling that it may, as one of the characters claims, make you believe in God. Can a reader reasonably ask for anything more?
So reads the dust jacket of the novel The Life of Pi by Yann Martel . My answer: yes.
To be more accurate I am not sure the book lives up to this haughty claim. And if it does make you believe in God, what kind of God is it and why do you believe? In other words The Life of Pi left me with a lot more questions than answers. Let’s start at the beginning, however, back at the “a boy, a tiger, and the pacific ocean part;” let’s focus on the wonderful storytelling.
At the center of this intriguing novel is Pi (short for Piscine, a famous swimming pool in Paris) Patel, an engaging Indian boy growing up in and around his family’s zoo in Pondicherry the former capital of French India. Growing up as he does Pi knows a great deal about animals and their captivity. His other passion is religion. A Hindu by birth, Pi soon adds Christian and Moslem to the list much to his parents chagrin.
Due to the unrest of 1970’s India, his family decides to sell the zoo animals and move to Canada to start a new life. The Japanese steam ship transporting the Patels and the animals to North America sinks off the coast of the Philippines, however, with only Pi, an Orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengali tiger escaping on a twenty-six foot lifeboat. Nature takes its coarse and soon it is just Pi and the tiger alone at sea. It from this point on that the story the storytelling really begins.
At this the author succeeds. Martel does a good job of setting the stage for Pi’s adventure, outlining his childhood in India and his connection to the zoo. This knowledge of animals and their environmental and psychological requirements is necessary to the plausibility of the adventure of being stranded 227 days at sea with a tiger and live to tell the tale. Pi is a charming and intelligent boy; at bottom a good person. He loves his family and his community. He studies hard at school and enjoys learning. He has a passionate belief in God sees His presence in the world around him. The survival story is interesting because we want to see how this charming and intelligent boy can survive the tragic and life threatening situation. The tiger in the boat is the intellectual and narrative twist. It is what pulls the story along. We know that he makes it because the story begins with Pi retelling the story to the author. We want to know how he makes it and we want to enjoy the story as we go along.
As I said, at this the author largely succeeds. One could nitpick about the some things. The way the author’s shifting back and forth between the present day Pi, and his interactions with the narrator, and the survival story serves little purpose and is soon dropped. How Pi’s voice seems a little too ageless. One can grant Pi a great deal of knowledge about animals given his background but his thoughts and language quite often break the bounds of a 16 year-old boy. There are here and there these type of flaws, but overall the story really is wondrous.
It is in turns captivating, surreal, frightening, disgusting, and comforting. Martel puts us on that boat and forces us to think about what we might feel. As the force of the story carries you along, you can’t help but thinking: what would I do, would I be able to survive? This is the engine of the story and the author has obviously done his homework. His descriptions of a host of incredible and fascinating activities seem real and wholly plausible. The discussions of animal behavior are interesting and based in reality but mixed in with this is a strong dose of imagination and wonder. It is amazing to think that someone could write over 200 pages retelling the story of being lost at sea and not lose your attention. It is to Martel’s great credit that the story rarely if ever drags. If you like interesting and creative storytelling, the Life of Pi is a fine specimen of the art. It brings alive a world most of us have never imagined.
The question remains: is the Life of Pi more than just a story? This is where I believe the novel breaks down. One of the main reasons I wanted to read the book was because of my interest in its religious and spiritual dimension. Here was a book that was supposed to make you believe in God (or so the cover claims). Here was a book that took faith seriously, didn’t hold to that hard materialist worldview. After reading it, however, I think Martel substitutes a hard materialist viewpoint for a mystical post-modern view of the role of religion.
There were some early quotes in the novel that peaked my interest and stoked my hopes for a story with a deeper meaning. Pi is from the start a pious boy (and I mean that without the modern negative connotation).
After interacting with an atheist teacher, he admits:
I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get struck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
It is obvious from this passage and others like it that the author and the character see religious belief and faith as an integral part of life; as toucing something crucial to our humanity. As Pi describes his religious development and his unique decision to adopt Hinduism, AND Christianity, AND Islam this passion and insight comes through. Martel seems to understand that these historic faiths are not just words in a book or myths handed down from ancient times, but that they are deeply intertwined with who people are in these societies. Pi experiences and embraces the unique and attractive aspects of each faith. He brings a nearly blank slate, a uniquely open mind and soul to these religions.
But again what Martel, and Pi, seems interested in are the beauty, wisdom, and power in these great stories. The rituals and rites of these faiths touch Pi as he experiences them but they also serve to explain the world, to help him make sense of the universe. Pi says of Hinduism: “With its notions in mind I see my place in the universe.” But tellingly he flows that up with: “But we should not cling! A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists!” What Martel seems to be saying is that these stories give meaning to life because we give meaning to the stories. That if we try to hard to make them concrete they will lose their usefulness. At no point does Pi discuss truth. He doesn’t approach any of his adopted faiths with reason or in a search for truth. He experiences these religions with his senses and with his emotions; it is a mystical and existential connection.
The end of the story further reinforces this view. When Pi’s horrific journey finally ends, along the coast of Mexico, he is eventually contacted by representatives of the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transportation. They are seeking answers to the shipwreck that claimed the lives of his parents and all the animals not too mention the ship’s crew. In answer to their questions, Pi relates the story that the author has spent the last 200 pages recounting. His visitors don’t believe the story. He tries to explain how the story is plausible. They insist he tell them what really happened. Pi explodes:
If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe? . . . Don’t you bully me with your politeness. Love is hard to believe ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your hard problem with hard to believe?”
The men demure and insist they are only being reasonable; that they want to know what really happened. Pi begins to relent but in doing so reveals his thought process. He tells the men “Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?” He continues:
Isn’t telling something – using words, English or Japanese – already something of an invention? Isn’t looking upon this world already something of an invention? . . . The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”
The men are only more confused by this bit of philosophizing. They don’t want to discuss the meaning of life and the role of language they simply want to understand what happened. They want a story that “does not contradict reality.” Eventually they break Pi down. He knows what they want. He explains:
I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.
Yes, that is what they want.
***WARNING MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, DON’T CONTINUE IF YOU WANT TO READ THE BOOK WITHOUT KNOWING THE ENDING***
After taking a moment to compose himself, Pi then relates this dry factuality; this other story. Instead of miraculous story with an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger Pi relates a horrifying story of ugly selfishness and despair. In this story four people survive, Pi, his mother, the ships cook and a sailor. The cook is a madman. He kills the sailor, who had a badly broken leg, to use as bait for fish. The cook torments the survivors in every way, eating all of the food and abusing everyone verbally and physically. After catching the cook in an act of cannibalism, Pi’s mom explodes and slaps the cook. Soon the cook kills her too. In the end Pi kills the cook and then “Solitude begins. I turned to God. I survived.”
The men try and digest this story and seek clues to why the ship sank. Pi can’t help them there; he has no idea why the ship sank. Finally, they feel they have the information they need and prepare to leave. Before they leave Pi has one question:
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 story is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without animals?
Both men choose the story with the animals. Pi responds: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
This ending weakened the power of the book for me. I find it hard to read this story any other way then to assume that the horrific story of murder and cannibalism is the actual story of what physically happened. What the author seems to be saying is that God is a better story. That religion is a tool to see life in a new light. That all things being equal isn’t it better to believe in the mystery and beauty of a wonderful story? Like a great deal of post-modernist thinking there is kernel of truth in this view. People of faith know that a cold materialist view of life fails to explain what it means to be human. It fails to explain art and beauty, love and wisdom, a meaning beyond ourselves. Faith surely encompasses tradition and experiences that can’t be tied down to cold hard facts. But what is missing is truth. Nowhere in the story does the issue of truth come up. Pi does not embrace religion because it is true or a warped human approximation of eternal truth. The contrast between the two stories is not between what is true and what isn’t between what captures the essence of what happened and what doesn’t. No, for Pi the difference is what each story offers. One offers pain and suffering and despair while the other at least offers some beauty, some hope.
This is why Pi is able to practice three incompatible religions simultaneously because they are not about truth but about “stories.” They are about inventing our lives in the process of telling stories. In this worldview truth is what we make of it. Pi goes beyond an intellectual humility that realizes that it could be wrong and therefore keeps from encroaching on God’s authority. Rather, in Pi’s world there seems no ultimate truth; no standard to appeal to regardless of position or background. I for one, fail to see the point of religious belief it is not a valid truth claim; if it doesn’t speak to a reality (a deeper, even non-physical reality but truth nonetheless). Perhaps, I am reading too much into all of this but for me the spiritual moral of the story muddied the work rather than giving it weight.
With all that said, The Life of Pi is a fascinating and engaging story that will entertain you for hours and leave you thinking about it for days. It is a unique and highly creative story with a elegant mixture of realism, even science, and fantasy and mystery. If you are looking for something different and unique – something more than just your typical novel – The Life of Pi would be an excellent choice. If you are looking for spiritual insight and and/or an argument for faith in the form of a novel, however, I am afraid you will likely be disappointed.
For more on this work see:
Orrin Judd’s review and his interview with the author
Here are two reviews I found helpful:
James Wood in the London Review of Books
Francie Lin in the Los Angles Times.