“Life of Pi”: a story that will make you believe in God?

I am a massive fan of Yann Martel‘s powerful and beautiful novel, Life of Pi. It is one of my favourite books of all time. Martel gave us a story worth remembering, a story that makes us believe in the impossible, that makes us question our beliefs and, most of all, makes us think twice about the phrase “hard to believe.”

Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, 16-year-old Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days, after the sinking of a cargo ship going from India to North America, stranded on a solitary lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker.

The story is told through two different narratives, first as the writer seeking to hear Pi’s story which he was told was a “story that would make him believe in God”, and then as the story that he was told through Pi.

I’m not one to hide my admiration for my most loved and cherished books, and even less so for this particular novel. I’ve even written about it before. But after my previous post, people started asking me questions about it. “I like the book and everything, but there’s one thing I still don’t understand,” someone told me. “How is it a story that makes us believe in God?”

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Before we can begin to answer that question, we first need to take a look at the ending of Life of Pi. Pi’s adventure concludes in a Mexican hospital bed – where he is interviewed by a pair of Japanese Ministry of Transport officials. The agents tell Pi that his story – which includes multiple animal companions and a carnivorous island – is too unbelievable for them to report, and ask Pi for a “more believable story”, a story that “makes sense.” So Pi tells them a different version of the story: one that paints a much darker and emotionally disturbing variation of events. After both stories have been shared, Pi leaves it up to the viewer (or reader) to decide which version they “prefer.”

In his first story, after the cargo ship sinks Pi finds himself joined on the lifeboat by a group of zoo animals that have managed to escape: an orangutan, a spotted hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg) and a Bengal Tiger (Richard Parker). After some time, Pi watches helplessly as the hyena kills the zebra and then the orangutan before it is, subsequently, dispatched by Richard Parker. Pi then sets about conditioning the tiger through rewarding behavior (food and fresh water), so that the two can co-exist in the boat.

In the second version of his story, the cargo ship still sinks, but rather than the animals joining him on the lifeboat, Pi claims he was instead joined by his mother the ship’s despicable cook, and an injured Japanese sailor. After some time, fearing for the limited supplies in the boat, the cook kills the weakened Japanese sailor, and later, Gita. Scarred from watching his mother die in front of his eyes, Pi kills the cook in a moment of self-preservation and revenge.

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At the end of the book, the writer makes the connection between those on the lifeboat in case anyone missed it: the hyena is the cook, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra is the sailor, and Richard Parker is Pi himself.

However, the film adaption‘s juxtaposition of the animal story and the human story has led many moviegoers to view the last-minute plot point as a finite “twist” – which was not Martel’s original intention. Where viewers have pointed to the look of anguish on Pi’s face during his telling of the human story in the film as “proof” that he was uncomfortable facing the true horror of his experience, the novel takes the scene in the opposite direction, with Pi expressing annoyance at the two men – criticising them for wanting “a story they already know.”

Either way, there is no “correct” answer – and Life of Pi intentionally leaves the question unanswered so that readers (and viewers) can make up their own mind.

It’s facing this final question where we can go back and consider the first one, and remember that, from the outset, The Writer character (and therefore us as readers) was promised a story that would make him believe in God.

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In the first part of the novel, we can see Pi struggling to reconcile the differences between different faith interpretations and religions (Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) and acknowledges that each one contains valuable elements, even if they all tell different stories. These elements combined help him survive his time at sea, regardless of whether he was alone or joined by Richard Parker.

Therefore by the end of the novel, the larger question about what is the true ending of the book and what is the true story, the one with or without the animals (see my previous post here) is actually of little concern to Martel. The real and bigger question is this: Which story do you prefer? Which story do you believe?

Of course, each person’s interpretation is subjective, but the question is intended to serve as a moment of theological reflection. Are you a person that prefers to believe in things that always make sense or things that you an physically see? Or are you a person that prefers to take things on faith and believe in miracles?

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From the beginning, Pi is faced with a very heavy challenge: telling a story that will make a person believe in God. I mean, let’s face it, that’s a pretty tall order. Some readers might remain unconvinced and believe his second story, but in the case of The Writer, who very openly tells Pi  that he prefers the story with Richard Parker, as well as the Japanese officials who say the same thing and even put in their report that it was remarkable that P managed “surviving 227 days at sea… especially with a tiger,” Pi successfully helps skeptics overcome one of the largest hurdles to faith – believing in the unbelievable. Believing in the impossible.

Pi Patel: “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?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question …”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
— Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Since Pi pairs the Japanese officials’ preference with the story with animals with the line, “and so it goes with God,” it is hard to completely separate the question from theology.  Through his multi-religion background, Pi does not believe that any of the world’s religions are a one-stop shop for the truth of God – and his goal is not to convert anyone to a specific dogma. Instead, his story is set up to help readers consider which version of the world they prefer – the one where we make our own way and suffer through the darkness via self-determination, or the one where we are aided by something greater than ourselves, regardless of which version of “God” we may accept.

His argument (and therefore his story that makes us believe in God) is that if we prefer the story with animals, we are choosing to believe in the impossible, we are choosing to have faith, and these are the two main things we do when we choose to believe in God. By choosing this, we believe in a world where magic and unbelievable things exist, a world where we are aided by “God” in whatever form we accept. In short: that we believe in God.

Of course, away from all the theological implications and away from personal preference,  it would be narrow-minded to view this ending as a dismissal of everything else that P has told us and experienced. If we keep in with his view that every religious story has worthwhile elements, a third interpretation could be that the truth of what happened is a mix of both stories. Much like Pi and his three-tiered faith routine, the reader can always pick and choose the parts that benefit their preferred version of the story.

At the end of the day, he “truth” is this: Pi survived for 227 days at sea, married the girl of his dreams, had children, and lived to tell two stories. The rest is up to us to choose to believe what we wish.

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