I resisted reading Life of Pi when it first came out. I often do this with books that ‘everyone’ reads. I resist the herd mentality when it comes to reading, though I was completely unsuccessful in this regard when it came to Harry Potter. I suspect many people were. Anyway, when Life of Pi won the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2002, and it was recommended for my book club at work, I trotted down to the bookstore and bought myself a copy. Though I am sensitive to the herd, I am a complete fool for the Man Booker; if the MBP chooses a book for its long list, it is already on its way to becoming to a favorite of mine.
The book opens with Pi, a young Indian boy, reveling in the smörgåsbord of religious options in his town. He becomes Catholic, he becomes Muslim, but he’s already Hindu. His parents are aghast at his activities and encourage him to choose. He refuses. He can’t make a choice: they all tell the same message to him.
His family owns a zoo, which they decide to transport to America. Pi and his family board a ship with all of the animals (Noah anyone?) and proceeds to sail to their new home. Along the way, they are met with a violent storm and the boat wrecks. Pi ultimately finds himself alone on a raft with an orangutan, a hyena, and an attitudinal tiger, Richard Parker. (I liked Richard Parker immediately, and renamed my rotten cat, Heathcliff, Richard Parker while I read this book. This, too, failed to get Heathcliff to return to good graces.) The other members of Pi's family presumably die. Aboard Pi's small raft, the orangutan and the hyena fight for supremacy. The hyena wins. Richard Parker ultimately wins over the hyena, and it is just Pi alone with Richard Parker, who is as depressed as ever. Pi and Richard Parker survive their long sea voyage across the Pacific and find themselves shipwrecked on the shore of Mexico. Pi watches Parker as the raft rolls ashore over the waves. He hopes to have some closure with the tiger, but nothing happens, and Richard Parker stalks into the woods, never to be seen from again. (Hmmm, a Bengal tiger in Mexico…)
Now comes the interesting part: Pi is found and taken to a hospital, where he is interviewed about his journey. The interviewers do not believe his story. They question first how an orangutan could float on a ton of bananas when bananas don’t float. When it is proved to them that bananas do float, they merely move onto another point in the story they find questionable. Finally, they ask for “a story without animals that will explain the sinking of the Tsitsum.” Pi pauses and proceeds with a tale not dissimilar from the first one.
The second story has four characters with the same personality traits as the first story, but this one includes Pi’s mother as the orangutan character and a French sailor as the hyena. When he finishes, he says “was this better, are there points you’d like me to change?” (311). The interviewers accept this version, saying that it is a “horrible” story; the insertion of humans for the animal characters now makes this story believable. The novel finishes with a letter from one of the interviewers to the narrator. The letter admits that it is very rare that a castaway could have survived so long at sea, especially in the “company of an adult Bengal tiger.” It would seem that this interviewer has decided, upon reflection, that Pi’s first story is the true one.
This telling and re-telling of this “unbelievable” story in Life of Pi provides a unique insight into the telling and retelling of religious stories. Pi is uniquely posed to understand foundational and similar themes couched in seemingly opposing contexts because he is an adherent of not one, but three, separate faiths. It makes sense to him that he could tell the same story, with the same action, same characters, and same points, but with different names, and connect with different people. He believes that all religious stories are the same. He does not get lost in details like names and places. We are the ones who get lost in details like this and make them the most important elements of our religions.
Martel’s point, which he roundabout suggests in Chapters 21 and 22, is to create a situation where the reader is required to understand the root of a story. It is not important who the characters are on the boat – they may be animals or people or be a figment of Pi’s imagination. It is the action that occurs on the boat that is incredibly relevant. Richard Parker, whether he be man, beast, Jesus, Pi, or Mohammed, saves Pi. What these characters do, not who they are, is what is important. Focusing on who/why religion is rather than its foundational message renders you as incapable of comprehending the real nature of religion, as the interviewers are incapable of understanding Pi’s first story. As Martel says:“lack imagination and miss the better story” (64).
Who do you think helps Pi cross the sea?