Do you believe in stories? In God? In an afterlife? What life experiences do you rely on when you read an author’s words?
An excellent book lingers in the mind. After I finished Life of Pi I found myself searching its pages for verification in sudden insights. That happened often, over many days. I kept returning to three sentences. “The world isn’t just the way it is. It’s how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a tale about storytelling—how to write or tell a story—the hero’s journey, the suspension of belief, and the weight words can carry. It’s a universal tale, man versus self and man versus nature with calls to the Universe, gods, for help and answers. The book questions belief. What do humans believe when the ark we were on disappears and we’re left alone, floating in the middle of an ocean? Who answers prayers when you’re the only soul left? Is there an afterlife?
The novel is layered with depths of meaning. It’s rich in symbolism. It’s about life as a zookeeper. It’s an adventure story. It’s a quest. It’s a pilgrimage. It’s a parable. And, it’s a story about God, which is how the tale begins.
Martel tells his tale in three parts, in classic structure, with the beginning, middle and end divided into clear sections.
Section one happens on land and sets up the foreshadowing between improbable, unnatural relationships that have occurred in nature—unusual friendships or relationships between naturally occurring foes—prey and predator. Prey and predator, a motif and play on words: prey the animal and pray, what humans resort to when faced with impossible situations.
Pi Patel contemplates three of the world’s major religions and their core beliefs:
Hindu, where “the individual soul touches upon the world soul like a well reaches for the water table. That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression. …this is clear: … it travels in this life on a pilgrimage where it is born and dies, and is born again and dies again, and again, until it manages to shed the sheaths that imprison it here below. Where…each of us is credited or debited depending on our actions.” (48, 49)
Christianity, “Their religion had one Story, and to it they came back again, and again, over and over. It was story enough for them. … It’s a god on a human scale. … What could justify such divine stinginess? Love, repeated Father Martin.” (55, 56)
Islam, where Pi states, “I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It’s a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion. (61)
Pi also contemplates atheism with Mr. Kumar, one of his teachers. “There are no grounds for going beyond scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience. A clear intellect, close attention to detail, and a little scientific knowledge will expose religion as superstitious bosh. God does not exist.” (27)
By page 63, Pi’s decided. “The presence of God is the finest of rewards.”
In section two, Pi’s journey starts and where most of the story occurs. The family and its zoo animals are en route to Winnipeg, Canada on an ocean freighter. During the night the freighter sinks and Pi is the sole survivor in a lifeboat with a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an Orang-utan named Orange Juice, and a tiger named Richard Parker.
Section three, I’m leaving for you to read and decide, leaving you to bring your interpretations and experiences into the Pi’s story world.
It’s a book worth reading at least twice. My hope is you’ll read it before watching the movie so you’ll have a pure experience in reading the narrative. You’ll find yourself, I believe, contemplating your own conclusions and musings. It’s that good a read.