Thoughts on the “Life of Pi”
The author announces in the early pages of the novel, through one of his characters, that those who hear his story would “find God.” It is quite a promise. My interest was peaked.
I initially wondered if the story was to be understood as metaphor. Were there hidden meanings to decipher? Was this the path to knowing God? Or perhaps the story would be so compelling that the reader could only come to one conclusion about the reality of the divine.
Patel’s novel, I discovered, is more about the importance of understanding the nature of narrative and truth. There are some interesting connections made by the author, but no secrets or code. Reality and truth about God, are ultimately manifestations of the eye of the seeker of God.
The author begins with an exploration of three narratives or truths about God in the Indian culture in which Pi is raised: Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. Pi explores and ultimately accepts all three as he grows from a child to a teenager. This is made possible through Pi’s upbringing in the Hindu tradition. Hinduism was, and is able, to absorb each new religion, each new narrative of God, as yet another manifestation of the ultimate Divine. That accounts for the hundreds of thousands of “gods” in Hinduism. “If something is really important, there must be many of them,” is the tradition. The monotheistic narratives, by contrast seem to follow a different adage: “If something is really important, there can be only one of them.” Monotheism promotes the assumption that there is only one true narrative, while Hinduism accepts that there are many paths to understanding the divine.
The novelist also includes a fourth narrative: western science. So Pi is immersed in this spring of truths or narratives about the nature of reality and the nature of God.
I will leave the story in the novel alone, and assume that anyone reading this will already be familiar with it. The main part of the story occurs in the lifeboat following the sinking of the ship on which Pi, his family, and the animals from the family zoo are traveling.
Pi must watch helplessly as the animals interact according to their nature. The hyena attacks the zebra. The orangutan attempts to defend the zebra and herself, but they are both overcome by the more powerful animal. Finally, the tiger,named Richard Parker, who has been hidden, emerges and kills the hyena. Pi is left alone, adrift in a small lifeboat, with a full grown tiger.
Miraculous events unfold that allow the tiger and Pi to survive their ordeal. Flying fish sail into the boat, much to the delight of both. Pi overcomes his vegan tradition and is able to catch a large fish for both of them to eat. Intermittant rain showers enable them to have water.
A tense truce is maintained between Pi and Richard Parker. Pi discovers that he is able to maintain control of the situation and actually train Richard Parker to keep to certain parts of the vessel. In this way they both can survive.
By the time both Pi and Richard Parker wash up on the shores of Mexico, both are emaciated and near death. The tiger leaves Pi and disappears into the jungle without looking back. Pi weeps , we assume for the loss of his companion during his saga at sea, as he is rescued.
An inquiry is held to determine the cause of the shipwreck. Pi tells his initial story to the agents from the shipping company who want to know what happened to their company ship. The account of the animals and the tiger is impossible for the investigators to believe. Over two hundred days at sea, in an open lifeboat, with a Bengal tiger? They ask Pi to give them a story that is believable, so they can report to their superiors. It is not clear why Pi agrees.
Pi then tells his second story of the events. In this story human persons take the place of the animals in the life boat: the zebra is actually the sailor who was injured when jumping into the lifeboat; the orangutan was Pi’s mother; the hyena was the bellicose cook on the freighter. When the cook killed the injured sailor to use his body for food and bait for fishing, Pi’s mother protested. When the cook killed Pi’s mother, Pi killed the cook. We learn in this story that Pi was, in fact, the tiger.
Pi asks the shipping company representatives, which story they accept. The implication is that both stories can be real because neither story can be proven. It is up to the company representatives, as it is up to the reader, which story they prefer to believe.
There are mysteries which are unanswered in the novel. Why is the episode on the carnivoris island included? If Pi is the tiger, does this mean that he has to come to terms with his own nature through this struggle for survival? When he trains the tiger, does this mean he is taming his own animalistic nature? Why does he weep when the tiger leaves?
The ultimate focus of the novel seems to be on the paradoxical nature of reality. Therefore finding God has more to do with accepting or believing a narrative or story of God.
It is up to the reader to choose which story they prefer The initial promise that the reader will find God is not a given. Finding God is a choice of which story about God we will accept.