Belief and Life of Pi

Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel, number 51 on the BBC book list, is one of my favorite books.  When I first read it several years ago, I began recommending it to everybody.  I even made my husband read it, and he’s generally not a reader.  It is just a great book, one that I think most anybody can enjoy.

It is about young Indian boy Pi, who is teased for his full name of Piscine.  He changes it to Pi to avoid bullying.  He’s also a thoughtful and spiritual boy, who begins searching for knowledge and truth.  He ends up becoming Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, seeing beauty and goodness in all of the religions.  His religious experiences are important to the overall theme of the novel.

life of pi cover
The middle section of the novel is about his family’s shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean.  The family owns a zoo and is moving from India to Canada to sell the zoo and to settle their family.  However, the ship crashes, and Pi is the only one to survive.  He ends up stranded on a life boat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena, and, most frightening, a tiger.  This is where the novel gets interesting.

It recounts Pi’s days on the ocean and his attempts to survive both the elements and the tiger, for the other animals either kill each other or end up eaten by the tiger, who is named Richard Parker.  (Interestingly, Richard Parker is the name of a sailor who suggests cannibalism and then becomes victim to cannibalism in Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.)  Pi tells a fantastic tale, of learning to dominate the large predator, figuring out how to fish, building a raft for himself away from the boat (and the tiger), and finding a man-eating island.  That was my favorite part: the island.  It fascinated me.

I hope I’m not spoiling the novel for anybody when I say that it ends with Pi washing up on the shores of Mexico and the tiger running off into the jungle.  (Nearly everybody has read this one, right?  If not, you should!)  Pi tells his tale, and the interviewers do not believe him.  I mean, it is a pretty unbelievable story.  So Pi tells another story.  He says that several people on the ship survived and one was the cook, who killed and ate the other passengers.  We then learn that perhaps Pi is the tiger, for he is the sole survivor.  This is where the allusion to Poe’s novel becomes pertinent, for cannibalism may actually explain Pi’s survival rather than the fantastic story of the tiger.

Yet Martel takes both of these stories to a different level and ties them back to religion.  The book makes some points about atheism and agnosticism, and says that when an atheist dies and “sees the light,” he or she will attribute it to the synapses in one’s brain firing as the body dies.  An agnostic, upon dying and encountering “the light” would perhaps change opinions and say that they were wrong, for there is a God.  This passage can then be applied to Pi’s story.  Do you believe it, or do you believe the more logical explanation of his survival?  It is an interesting way to talk about and think about belief.

I do enjoy this book for the interesting story but also for the philosophical and religious musings.  I liked it so much that I’ve read it twice. I would read it again, too.  I also recently saw the movie.  It was great!  Ang Lee directed it, so some of the mystical and dream-like styling worked well with Pi’s time in the ocean and the mood of his story.  It also followed the book closely, which always pleases me.

The novel is a frame narrative, in which Pi tells his story, years later, to a journalist.  The premise is that Pi’s story will make the journalist believe in God.  I’m honestly not sure if another person’s story can necessarily (or always) convince others to believe.  Sometimes such stories or testimonies can be inspiring.  But we have sacred books and mythical traditions that have been passed on for thousands of generations and not everybody believes them.  I’m sometimes moved by other’s stories and experiences, but I find that I’m most convinced and schooled by my own.  I see life as a place for us all to journey, together but separately.  We are all working toward becoming who we can best be, through experiences and studying and learning and growing.  It is a natural process.  Some of us encounter hard things.  Some of us make choices that create conflict, and we learn “the hard way.”  Some of us can look at history and not repeat it.  No matter who you are, however, I think the greatest teacher is one’s own experiences.  I’m not convinced that Pi could tell his story to everybody and prove something, like religion or the existence of God.  However, I think that we can all draw conclusions from the sum of our experiences and that those conclusions may be what is best for us.  It is a journey, we have agency, and we must learn for ourselves.

In the end, it is clear that Pi believes, but is his story (or stories) convincing?  Which one do you believe?

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