Book Review: “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel
I read this book years ago and didn’t know what to make of it, but didn’t feel compelled to re-read it.
Then the film came out and I was surprised to hear it was a PG – and that people were taking their children to see it. I didn’t see how that would work; my memories of the book were that it was desperate, violent and largely metaphorical. It was raw angst and hellishness. But perhaps Hollywood were going to turn it into a Boy and his Tiger story – as if Richard Parker was some kind of cute dolphin, dog or other companionable animal.
And so I decided to re-read it.
The first part is set in India and there are a few strands to the story.
One is a boy searching for God. He adopts three contradictory religions wholeheartedly and thinks they are compatible – in that a search for the divine is central to each.
The other main strand is a discussion of symbiosis. The context for the discussion is zoos – but in the book as a whole, the idea is recurrent. Even in Pi’s search for a functioning faith, there is the sense that there is symbiosis – that these contrasting and contradictory faiths can co-exist in a supercomplex relationship so that a functioning reality can be held together for the purposes of living.
The second part of the story takes place when the zoo is being exported and the ship sinks, leaving some unlikely survivors on the life raft: the protagonist (Pi), a tiger (Richard Parker), a hyena, an orang-utan and an injured zebra. Before long, they are reduced in number until only Pi and Richard Parker are left. They manage to mirror the symbiotic relationship of the goats and hippos at the zoo and find a way to live together for months in an entirely unsatisfactory but functional relationship.
There is an odd episode near the end of the castaway phase when Richard Parker and Pi find a floating island that has its own eco system with very few participants: trees, algae and meerkats. This seeming paradise becomes hellish when Pi discovers that the island is carnivorous.
The final part of the novel is when Pi is recovering, and is interviewed about his experience. The interviewers are incredulous and Pi is asked to tell his story without the animals.
In the second, equally angst-ridden version, the animals are humans: the hyena is a French chef, the orang-utan is his mother and the zebra is an injured sailor. The salient events are re-told in brief – a stark and awful tale of murder and carnage. The listeners conclude that Pi must “be” Richard Parker.
The novel is brought to a neat conclusion when Pi asks the listeners which version they preferred – the one with the animals and the one with the humans. They preferred the one with the animals. Pi’s point was that his reality back on land was the same, in practical terms, whether it was animals or humans – his experience was just as tragic and pitiable.
…“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 the animals, or the story without animals?”
Mr Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question…”
Mr Chiba: The story with animals.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
I suppose that Pi is recommending that if you can have God in your worldview, it is preferable as a life-state than denying yourself that opportunity.
So, on a second reading I think I understand the book better. Life is complex, tragic, difficult and valuable. One’s survival depends on one’s ability to live symbiotically with others – and to acknowledge that we should live to help others survive and in doing so we increase our own chances. And if there can be a God – why not go with that?