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Book review: “The Life of Pi” By Yann Martel

I finished “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel a couple days ago, and I’m still not sure how to take it.

Maybe there are deep levels of allegory to the book. There are certainly hints.

Martel names his central character Pi, a nickname that Piscine Molitor Patel gives himself to avoid being called Pissing by his classmates.

It is also, as Piscine makes clear at school, the same word as the number in mathematics that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, 3.14159…… and on into infinity.

Maybe Pi is a stand-in for the individual human spirit that, once started, has no end. Or not.

“A story to make you believe”

In an author’s note after the title page, the novel’s narrator — maybe a fictional “Yann Martel,” maybe not; he’s never named — is initially told that the story of a shattering event in Pi’s life “will make you believe in God.” A page later, after having exhaustively interviewed a middle-aged Pi, the narrator himself writes that it was “a story to make you believe in God.”

That story involves the 227 days that the 15-year-old spends in a lifeboat.

With a tiger.

What happens is that the transport ship carrying Pi and his family from India to Canada sinks, and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with the tiger, a zebra, a hyena and an orangutan. Needless to say, the tiger makes quick work of the three animals.

So, after losing his family in the sea tragedy, the boy is forced, alone, to face the fear of death from the ocean, from the elements, from sharks, from starvation, from thirst and, if that weren’t enough, from this tiger.

We’re definitely in the territory of mystical realism or magical realism or whatever you want to call it.

Pi survives by developing a relationship with the tiger in which the animal’s might, ferocity, hunger and instincts are balanced by the boy’s intelligence, bravery and zoological knowledge. (Did I say the boy’s father was a zoo director?)

His fear

Pi embraces his fear. Is the aim of the book to teach that lesson? Pi = us. Tiger = fear. We only achieve a full life by coming to terms with our fears. Is that the allegorical point?

The lifeboat story takes up the middle two-thirds of the novel. In leading up to that account, the narrator relates that, as a child, Pi was precociously religious — and promiscuously.

One after the other, in quick succession, Pi takes up Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam. But, with each new faith he accepts, he doesn’t discard any earlier one.

His non-religious family doesn’t know of his simultaneous beliefs in these religions until, on a stroll down the beach, they and Pi bump into the three clerics who have been involved in what each believes to have been the boy’s conversion to the cleric’s faith.

So Pi is presented as a boy who believes in God, loves religious thought and ritual, but transcends the petty quibbles and wall-building of organized religion.

Maybe Pi is a stand-in for us. Maybe Martel wants us to see that we should believe in God but not worry about which one or many of the world’s religions we use to get to Him. Or not.

Turning to God

Given this build-up — “a story to make you believe in God” and Pi’s pan-religious acceptance — it is more than a bit amazing that, during his lifeboat ordeal, the boy says very little about God. Then, at the very end of the story, when the boy and the tiger seem doomed to die on the seas, Pi tells the narrator:

It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.

And then the boat hit a beach in Mexico, and the boy and his tiger were saved — the tiger running off into the jungle, the boy being found by some villagers.

There is no discussion of what “turn to God” meant. No link between that turning and the surviving.

Is the point here — the point of the novel — that it doesn’t do much good to talk about God with the words of reason? That the only way to understand God and “see” God is with a sort of peripheral vision?

Allegories, such as Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” involve characters and situations that are stand-ins for a belief system or set of ideas. In those cases, the Christian faith.

It doesn’t seem to me, after reading “The Life of Pi,” that Martel has a particular system of theological ideas in mind in telling the story.

Something else going on

I’m thinking that something else is going on. I’m thinking that Martel has included these allegory-type elements and the various God-talk because they make for a more interesting story.

I’m left thinking that this is a story about stories.

The end of the book is taken up with Pi being interviewed by two representatives of the Japanese shipping line that had owned the cargo ship that sunk, killing everyone except for the boy.

He tells them the story of his ordeal on the lifeboat with the tiger. They don’t believe it.

Which story?

So, over nine pages, he gives them a completely different story about the lifeboat ordeal, without the tiger but with his mother, an injured sailor and the ship’s homicidal cook as company. It is a gruesome story of murder and cannibalism.

“In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“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?”

So Martel seems to be saying that life is more interesting, more vibrant, if we tell better stories — even if those stories aren’t based on the facts.

And/or that, when we hear interesting and vibrant stories that stretch our credulity, we shouldn’t be so hard-assed about insisting on reason and likelihood.

A better story

And when it comes to God — I didn’t find the novel “a story to make [me] believe in God.” I already do, but, if I were a non-believer, I don’t think I would find faith proven by this book.

Proof isn’t on Martel’s agenda. His argument, I think, is that life is more interesting, more vibrant, if we think there is a God.

God is a better story.

No God is a good story, too.

On the other hand, being wishy-washy about the reality of a Supreme Being — being an agnostic — is to fail at life. In fact, midway through the book, the middle-aged Pi says:

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!” — and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeast-less factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Probably a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.

Martel’s “The Life of Pi” is “a better story.”

Patrick T. Reardon

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