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The Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Harvest Books, 2003

commentary by John Tintera

Once upon a time, the stories that our ancestors told one another and passed down to their children began with such phrases as “In the beginning…” “In those days…” “And so it happened…” These were stories that mattered 5,000 years ago and still matter today; the difference today being that people have so little time for them. One of the most talked about novels of the past few years, The Life of Pi, addresses itself to the demise of myth and meaning in our culture. Actually, this mesmerizing tale forces us to look myth and meaning square in the eye.

The Life of Pi starts out in India, a place where author Yann Martel has said all stories are possible. The narrative contains two mythic story lines, one so incredible as to be almost unbelievable, the other easy to believe but rarely seen in actuality. The “impossible story” is about two survivors of a shipwreck that occurs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. One survivor is a 16-year-old boy, Pi Patel; the other is a 450 lb. Bengal tiger from his father’s zoo. Pi and the tiger live together for more than seven months in a 26-foot lifeboat on the open seas. The possible, though highly uncommon tale concerns the same boy and his simultaneous belief in three religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. The narrator of the novel, an unnamed man from Canada, gives us a clue to Martel’s deeper intentions when he says that the story of Pi Patel will make you a believer in God.

Pi’s family lives in a zoo. Part of the magic of The Life of Pi is the wonderful insights that it gives into everyday life amongst lions, tigers, and elephants. For one, we learn that life in the zoo does not compare so badly to life in the wild. In the wild, food is scarce, governed by a strict hierarchy as to who eats and when. Despite the absence of steel bars, the savanna limits its inhabitants with parasites and predators and jealously guarded hunting territories that inhibit the movement of members of the same species. At least in a well-kept zoo, an animal’s comfort zone is protected and all of its needs are satisfied.

Although Pi’s parents and older brother are nominally Hindu, they are skeptical of piety and hold fast to the religion of reason. Pi, on the other hand, is a naturally pious person. His religious education begins with a grounding in the sights, smells, and rites of Hinduism, which are handed on to him by his maternal aunt. Later, he meets a Catholic priest, who teaches him about Love as the foundation of all being. Finally, he encounters a Sufi who brings him into the brotherhood and devotion of Islam. Despite criticism from friends and family, and eventually from the very people who have taught him their ways, Pi clings to all three religions and refuses to give in to their pressure to choose one over the others.

Some of the most beautiful passages in the book are devoted to Pi’s praise of the three religions to which he is attached. One especially poetic section describes his love of Hinduism:

I am a Hindu because of the sculptured cones of red kumkum powder and baskets of yellow turmeric nuggets, because of garlands of flowers and pieces of broken coconut, because of the clanging of bells to announce one’s arrival to God, because of the whine of the reedy nadaswaram and the beating of drums, because of the patter of bare feet against stone floors down dark corridors pierced by shafts of sunlight, because of the fragrance of incense, because of the flames of arati lamps circling in the darkness, because of bhajans being sweetly sung, because of elephants standing around to bless, because of colourful murals telling colourful stories, because of foreheads carrying, variously signified, the same word—faith.

This kind of sensual, exotic beauty speaks to the treasures found in different paths, the deep wisdom permeating the practice and rituals of the world’s religions.

The biographical part of the novel ends with the decision by Pi’s parents to sell the zoo, distribute the animals to other zoos, and move to Canada. With all of the arrangements made, the small family books passage on a freighter that will carry themselves and all of their belongings, plus the animals that are destined for zoos in North America. The tale that follows begins with this startling line, “The ship sank.”

Pi is thrown overboard by the crew of the sinking ship and lands with a bounce on the tarpaulin of one of the lifeboats. Following him over the prow and into the small craft are a 500 lb. zebra, a hyena and an orangutan named Orange Juice. In his fright, Pi notices Richard Parker, the zoo’s prized Bengal tiger swimming toward him. His first inclination is to save the tiger and bring him into the boat, but he suddenly realizes the tiger’s salvation would surely mean his own death. For the first two and a half days at sea, it’s not clear whether Richard Parker has made it into the lifeboat. What is clear is that Pi is the only human survivor of the shipwreck.

After the initial shock and seasickness wear off, the hyena starts to eat the zebra limb by limb. The orangutan comes next, which puts up a fight, but finally succumbs. Not long afterwards the hyena is quickly dispatched, at the hands of Richard Parker.

Pi goes into survival mode. He soon discovers a locker filled with enough food, water, and equipment to keep a frugal castaway alive for several months. Conditioning the tiger through the methods of a ringmaster, Pi is able to get him to stay in one end of the boat. In the absence of any books or other forms of entertainment, the boy comes to rely on his relationship with Richard Parker. The tiger relies on Pi for food, fresh water, and a clean “cage.” In like manner, doing these things keeps Pi going. It is interesting to note that the relationship of human to animal described in the section on zoos comes to life in real time on the open boat.

After seven months at sea, the boy and the tiger wash ashore on a beach in Mexico. The tiger rushes into the jungle nearby and the boy is rescued and taken to a hospital by local villagers. At the hospital, two representatives from the shipping company that owned the sunken vessel visit Pi. When Pi tells them his miraculous story, they are angry with disbelief—they think he’s trying to be funny. He asks the men if they would prefer to hear the account without any animals in it and they say yes. Pi tells them an alternate version where he, his mother, and two crewmembers of the ship find themselves in a lifeboat after the ship goes down. The narrative is a mirror of the previous one, only this time the four humans prey on each other. Murder happens in cold blood and the victims’ flesh is dried and consumed. When Pi asks the men which story they prefer, they say the one with the animals, to which he answers, rather cryptically, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

It is the reader, in fact, who is given a choice. Which version of the life of Pi do you prefer? The magical or the more realistic tale? This choice reminds me of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. The legend is one of human faith and divine intervention. If these elements were stripped away, we would be left with a standard tale of superstition and human sacrifice, the sort common in the ancient world. In all likelihood, Abraham and Isaac would have faded away with time. The same is true of Jesus of Nazareth. If Jesus’ crucifixion were all there was, that would likely be the end of the story. The supernatural event of his resurrection is what makes Jesus’s life and impact the stuff that changes lives.

The wonderful thing about the choice that Martel offers us in The Life of Pi is how it reminds us that faith and skepticism are options. Not only is each of us given this choice, but we have to face it every day. I, for one, am thankful that I have the option of faith. Just as I cannot imagine a world without fairy tales or stories that begin “Once upon a time,” I cannot imagine a world where the hope of faith has completely disappeared.

One of the tidbits of information contained in the survival manual that Pi finds in the lifeboat’s locker holds the key to appreciating the entire novel. In the book, Pi learns that for a person of average height standing up in the lifeboat, the horizon is about 2 ½ miles distant on a clear day. If you picture yourself looking down at Pi from above, the distance he can see in any direction would form a circle whose diameter is 5 miles. In mathematics, we know that pi is the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference and that pi is an infinitely repeating number 3.14596….

For me, this aerial view of the boy on the lifeboat highlights one of the mysteries of our own lives. Just like Pi, our consciousness gives us the impression of living in the center of a universe circumscribed by many different conditions. We are limited by time, space, gender, economics, education, and a multitude of other factors—just as Pi is limited by the visible horizon, the currents that carry his tiny craft, and by the presence of the tiger. At the same time, no matter what our circumstances, we have the ability to sense that there must be something more to our lives than what our ordinary wits perceive. Just as pi is an infinitely repeating number, our own lives seem to have a dimension of infinity. For skeptics, this dimension is rationalized away; for people of faith, it’s seen as evidence of what our scriptures teach us. The fact that The Life of Pi can provide so deep a metaphor for our lives while remaining so truly enjoyable as fiction is the supreme achievement of this remarkable novel.

Copyright ©2004 John Tintera


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