“[W]hat is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker? Is it no more than to shine at practicalities – the getting of food, clothing and shelter? Why can’t reason give greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in an answer? Why such a vast net if there’s so little fish to catch?”
Why, indeed? Who hasn’t wondered at some time or another, about the point of it all. Why are we here? What does it mean?
Piscine Molitor Patel, commonly known as Pi, stranded on a lifeboat somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, has time to consider these questions. More than enough time, actually. In the end, he will have 227 days to ponder those questions in between bouts of feeding himself and the 3-year-old Bengal tiger who is his sole companion and his greatest threat. If he cannot keep the tiger fed, he will most likely be eaten. If he is successful, he may still be eaten in the end. Only a regular diet of fish and the tiger’s intense spasms of motion sickness keep the boy alive.
How Pi, a teenage boy from Pondicherry, India, and Richard Parker, the tiger, find themselves in this particular situation is a complicated story. In brief, Pi, his mother and father and younger brother, and an assortment of animals belonging to his father’s zoo are on a Japanese freighter bound for Canada. Twelve days into the voyage the ship sinks; the boy’s family, the ship’s crew, and almost all the animals perish. Pi, thrown into a lifeboat just before the ship goes down, survives, along with a zebra, a hyena, and a female gorilla. Oh yes, and the tiger.
It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: a zebra, a hyena, a gorilla and a tiger walk into a bar… What it is – at least, what I think it is – is a meditation on the nature of story-telling. What is it about the human condition that predisposes us to tell stories – more than that, to crave them in the way we crave food, drink, human companionship, love? Why do our most important stories contain an element of spirituality? And why do we believe some stories and not others?
This last question, I think, is the real point of Life of Pi. If we can only believe in stories that correspond to our own reality, to the things we know or have been proven to be true, we’re in danger of missing so much. As Pi says, “Be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.” In the end, when Pi is rescued and is recuperating in Mexico, he tells the men from the Japanese Ministry of Transport about the tiger. He tells them about the zebra who fell into the boat and broke its leg. About the hyena who tore off that leg and ate it, and was then eaten by the tiger. About Orange Juice, the sweet, motherly gorilla who also fell victim to the tiger. He tells them about the blind castaway he encountered late in his ordeal. He tells them how he kept Richard Parker at bay by convincing him that he, Pi Patel, was the dominant animal.
Is that what happened? Does it matter? The men from the Japanese ministry find the original story of the tiger and the man-eating tree (no time to go into that here, read the book) impossible to swallow. We have difficulty believing it, they say.
“If you stumble at mere believability,” Pi says, “what are you living for?”
Still, they want another story. A more credible story. And so Pi offers up another, less magical narrative. Instead of a zebra, it’s a Taiwanese sailor who’s ended up in the boat with a broken leg. The hyena who bit off the zebra’s leg is transformed to a bad-tempered cook, the gorilla is Pi’s mother. And the tiger – well, the tiger is also the cook. I think.
The investigators are satisfied. This, at least, they can believe. But when Pi asks them which is the better story, they are united in agreement: the story with animals is the better story. And that, I feel sure, is what the author, Yann Martel, is asking of the reader. There is a deep, undeniable longing within us for better stories – stories that will, as Martel has said, make us believe in God.
Life of Pi is about survival, it’s about resilience under unbearable conditions, it’s about human resourcefulness. It’s gripping from beginning to end, terrifying in parts, but also, at times, very funny. If it was only for the originality of its concept it would have deserved to win the Man Booker Prize – it’s nothing less than a triumph.