Page count: 319
Year of publication: 2001
Summary: Life of Pi is a Canadian fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel. The protagonist is Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry who explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Now, I wouldn’t consider myself a religious person. If a book claims to make me a believer in God, I am more inclined to scoff at it before turning it down. But Life of Pi came to me in such a way that I couldn’t refuse. It was a Christmas gift from a few years back.
The moment I unwrapped it, I could already tell I wasn’t its first owner. Its pages were slightly yellowed and the cover well worn (I would later find out that the cover art I got was not the common print), but it felt sturdy and weighted in my hands, like it carried not only the words that it held within its pages, but also the experiences of the people who read it.
It has since become my favourite novel, not just for its physical presence but, of course, its story. There's this line in the book that really stood out to me in my latest reread. “To choose doubt as as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” It appears in the novel after Piscine Patel (the main character) has an encounter with his atheist science teacher. Young Pi, who at the time was already a staunch believer in three religions, could not understand an existence that completely rejected religion.
Only later would he realise that it wasn’t the directionality of faith that mattered, but rather, the simple raw act of believing in something that did.
Life of Pi is a novel split into three parts: Before the shipwreck, during the shipwreck, and after the shipwreck. But to me, it is also split another three-way: Pi’s relationship with religion, his upbringing and interest in his family’s zoo, and finally, the events of the shipwreck. In order to understand what transpires during the shipwreck and after, you must first have a firm grasp of the first two parts which is where the beginning of the novel comes in.
Before the shipwreck
As with every book that begins with a backstory, it is not done without reason. The start serves to establish Pi as the main character; a romantic at heart, kind of eccentric to the people around him, but undoubtedly gifted with a mind that is as analytical as it is passionate. It also establishes the foundation on which this story will blossom, through both the factual fidelity of the animals in Pondicherry Zoo, as well as the abstraction of the religions he adopts along the way.
From that, I think you can tell which moments really stood out to me in the beginning chapters. For starters, let’s begin with God. Pi is no ordinary believer, and that can be seen by his multiple faiths and his atypical acceptance for atheism. He chooses early on not to be bothered by the politics of religion, shown through his blatant disregard for societal norms as he carries out his every day religious rituals. Instead, he believes there is a universal meaning that transcends the borders that divide them.
Even as a child, he finds comfort and enrichment in exploring the differing narratives of each religion. This carries forward to during the shipwreck, when religion provided both ritual and meaning to his life.
It could even be said that his love for religion, in fact, is more like a love for belief in general. Especially towards the end of the novel, he emphasises again and again his preference for choosing the “better story”. This doesn’t only happen at the very end of the novel when he speaks to the Japanese inquisitors, but throughout it, as he tries to inject meaning into his life as a castaway. Part of me can relate to this. Reality is often depressing and unappealing, so when given the option, why not choose to believe in something better?
Next is the animals. It makes sense that Pi, as the son of a zoo owner, wouldn’t share the same disdain that most people hold towards zoos. Rather than ‘animal prisons’, he considers them just another form of territory. “If you went to a home, kicked down the front door, chased the people who lived there out into the street and said, ‘Go! You are free! Free as a bird! Go! Go!’ - do you think they would shout and dance for joy?” He doesn’t think so, and his argument is sound. Indeed, why would an animal want to run away from a place where every basic necessity is provided for them in abundance?
However, knowing that a wild animal is comfortable in confinement doesn’t necessarily tame them. Pi learns this the hard way when his father feeds a live goat to their zoo’s Bengal tiger to demonstrate to his sons how dangerous wild animals can be. Gushing blood and guts later, he experiences a valuable warning against anthropomorphising animals; even if they may seem to have personality traits like humans, that doesn’t change their carnal nature.
It’s important that the story established these bits of scattered knowledge because its significance spreads throughout the rest of the novel. Example: When Pi is stranded on the lifeboat with Richard Parker, one of the first things he does is exert his dominance, establish his territory, and provide sufficient food and drink to the tiger.
Those are direct reactions based on his knowledge gained as a child. But if we remember the ending of the novel, it’s interesting to think further into his choice of companionship, and maybe, the fact that humans and animals aren’t that different after all? But more on that later.
During the shipwreck
It’s during this portion of the book when a lot of my friends began to bore, but this was when I really found myself invested in his story. I’m not sure whether it’s just me that finds it satisfying to read what is essentially dramatised inventory management, but knowing the details of his everyday activities definitely increased the impact of the novel’s ending for me; something the movie never achieved.
I want to begin with the elephant in the room, or should I say, the tiger on the boat? Either way, at the end of the novel we find out that Richard Parker isn’t real. In fact, none of the animals are. Pi explains which humans are which animals etcetera etcetera but what’s more interesting is how we should reinterpret Richard Parker and Pi, who are supposedly the same person/beast now.
After reading the ending, it was immediately clear to me that Richard Parker’s existence was a coping mechanism, a manifestation of the wild savage side that began to emerge in Pi himself, but what triggered it in the first place? All it takes is a little backtracking.
Richard Parker didn’t emerge from the beginning. He didn’t emerge to kill them all from the get go. He allowed the hyena (the French cook) to brutalise and murder the Zebra (the Taiwanese sailor) without taking any action. Only when the orangutan (his mother) was killed, then Richard Parker (Pi) struck. It’s truly saddening to realise that it’s the murder of his own mother right before his eyes which caused the evil within him to rise. And for the rest of the novel, it was just a matter of holding that side of him back.
There are a lot of interesting things to consider after you draw those dotted lines together. For instance, why did Pi choose Richard Parker to symbolise himself? At first, it seems like a coincidence, reflecting his bad memory from the Bengal tiger feeding in his youth. But it’s more than that. It’s clear from the way he treats Richard Parker that Pi finds this newfound side to him frightful and unwelcome. He chose the Bengal tiger over all other animals because there was no better definition for an unpredictable, powerful and remorseless killer, driven by survival instincts and nothing else.
Remember now that Pi is a pacifist, a born vegetarian who feels faint at the sight of blood and meat, with only the power of words and faith to arm his skinny frame. Richard Parker is the complete opposite of that, and the appearance of this alter ego becomes a mental battle between the Pi he’s always been and the Pi he may be forced to become. Our main character is bright, however, and he realises the only way to keep this side of him under control is to exert dominance and create boundaries.
In psychology, it’s a common coping mechanism to “separate” your disorder from yourself, effectively placing you in the shoes of a victim rather than the perpetrator. It acknowledges that there’s nothing “wrong” with you, just that you’re dealing with a problem. The good thing is problems can be controlled and resolved, and I believe that is how Pi maintains his sanity for so long. While it begins that way, however, we can observe the way Pi begins to adapt to the situation, and eventually, comes to terms with this other side of him. He starts eating meat, he becomes accustomed to killing, and he starts to feel attached to this alter ego for keeping him alive thus far.
But this living arrangement doesn’t last forever. Pi eventually reaches the shore, and he and Richard Parker part ways forever. In the novel, the tiger is depicted running into the forest, but we all know now that just meant Pi was finally discarding his alter ego. After all, he didn’t need it anymore, although that didn’t mean he didn’t miss it.
“I wept like a child. It was not because I was overcome at having survived my ordeal, though I was. Nor was it the presence of my brothers and sisters, though that too was very moving. I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously.”
This is one of those moments that never made sense to me on the first read. What fondness could you possibly hold for a coping mechanism developed after such trauma? But when I put myself into his shoes, I finally understood.
Just imagine spending 227 days living life constantly on the edge. Life and death interweave so closely you can no longer tell which would be the worse option. You survive and suffer for so long in this state, and then all of a sudden, it’s over. Everything that has been your life for months is suddenly wrenched away from your hands. There is a relief so immense that you can’t even process it. You need time to say goodbye, to neatly wrap up that period of your life. But everyone else hurries you into clean clothes and warm food, back into normalcy as quickly as possible. There’s no closure.
After the shipwreck
“I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example - I wonder - could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less? I’ll tell you, that’s one thing I hate about my nickname, the way that number runs on forever. It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then you can let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”
Pi directs the last bit of that monologue not only to Richard Parker, but to his old self, his old life, and his family whom he lost. His life in no way deserved to turn out the way it did, but this is also what makes the way he chooses to view it so much greater.
The last few pages of his novel are taken up by Pi’s interview with the Japanese inquisitors. They hear his story from start to finish, but seem doubtful that any of it is true. Of course, it probably isn’t, but that’s really not the point. Remember at the start of this post (congratulations if you’ve made it this far!) when I mentioned Pi’s fixation with telling the “better story”? As he tells what he considers this time to be the “better story”, he shows obvious frustration towards the Japanese inquisitors for not taking that leap of faith with him. They seem to believe that this story is simply his way of avoiding the truth, though to be more accurate, it’s more like his life principle.
Even after everything, Pi believes that the purpose of life is having something to believe in. His principle is something I believe resonates with the author Yann Martel. In his words, “That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it? The selective transforming of reality?” That’s why, when Pi asks the Japanese inquisitors this question, “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”, he isn’t asking for an objective opinion. He is asking to tap into both the inquisitors' and the reader’s personal principles. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you choose to believe there is hope in this world, or will you be put down?
We all know what Yann Martel picked, at least. Because when Pi poses this question to the ‘author’, “Could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less?”, he complies.
There are so many things I love about Life of Pi. It appeals to the fiction lover in me, the symbolism hunter, and the side that chooses to see life through rose-coloured glasses. Yann Martel is a genius in the way he pulls this story together, playing on the way our subconscious are drawn towards “true stories”, stringing us along until we eventually realise - this story isn’t true, is it? But by the time we realise, it doesn’t even matter. His point has been made, this story is amazing, and I’m coming out of this with a renewed sense of hope.
So, let me repeat this quote again: “To choose doubt as as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” What is your decision?