Yann Martel’s fictional account of the extraordinary life of Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel begins in the small Indian town of Pondicherry, when a backpacking writer meets an elderly Indian man who tells him, wide-eyed: “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”
Hesitant, the writer agrees to listen to the story, and the man begins his tale with a peculiar sentence. “Once upon a time,” he says, “there was a zoo in the Pondicherry Botanical Garden.”
Pi, the story’s protagonist, is an interesting character (he is, after all, named after a Parisian swimming pool). Born in a Hindu family to a rationalist zookeeper and a mother whose ties to her faith are purely cultural, he becomes increasingly religious as he grows older and eventually discovers both Catholicism and Islam, as well. Though the novel’s heterodox pantheistic worldview, uniting these three religions under the umbrella of love and beauty, may not be convincing to most, what Pi really values is conviction. After his first encounters with Christianity, he explains: “We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” Pi respects believing in something, and to him, the choice to believe in ‘something’ is inextricably tied to the“paradise on Earth” of biology and zoology in which he lives. His observations of animal behavior, of the habits of the lazy three-toed sloth and the formidably dangerous tiger, as well as the refuge he finds in his nickname (“that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof…that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe”), open his eyes to miracles of nature and creation, and establish his identity in both the religious and the scientific realms. Pi’s roots in faith and science are crucial to understanding philosophical question of his incredible story.
Pi learns about the importance of storytelling in his acceptance of Christianity, and by the end of the novel, Pi will be telling his own story. He narrates that “Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was not at all like that. He was very kind. He served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.” Pi’s Story, like Christ’s, invites the reader to make a choice between the rational and the irrational. Pi, a student of science, chooses to take a leap of faith, and encourages us to do the same.
So, what is Pi’s story? The majority of Life of Pi is set on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific, after Pi’s family and most of their animals perish in a shipwreck between India and Canada. The only survivors are Pi, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, an orangutan, a zebra, and a coyote. Eventually, only the fittest animals—Pi and Richard Parker—remain on the raft, and, in an agonizingly slow process of taming and mutual dependency, they learn to coexist. This is not an easy story to read, nor is it an easy movie to watch. Richard Parker is a vicious, 450-pound predator, and he and Pi are engaged in a struggle for survival. The balance they manage to strike is suspended somewhere between the terrifying and the sublime, and though they remain on opposite sides of the lifeboat for the many months they are afloat, it is clear when they wash up on the Mexican shore that neither one could have survived without the other. Pi even experiences a sorrowful kind of love when Richard Parker disappears into the jungle without a look back.
On the lifeboat, Pi keeps a journal in which he details how he catches fish with his hands, how his skin burns and his lips peel, how Richard Parker grows seasick and emaciated. And in these scientific processes, which include lightning storms and bioluminescence as well as sunburn, Pi finds God. Pi would be nowhere without reason—he never trusted Richard Parker blindly—but he also would not have survived without faith. He narrates:
“As quickly as it had appeared, the bolt vanished—the spray of hot water had not finished landing upon us and already it was gone. The punished swell returned to black and rolled on indifferently.
I was dazed, thunderstruck-nearly in the true sense of the word. But not afraid.
[…] To Richard Parker I shouted, ‘Stop your trembling! This is a miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity. This is…this is…’ I could not find what it was, this thing so vast and fantastic. I was breathless and wordless. I lay back on the tarpaulin, arms and legs spread wide. The rain chilled me to the bone. But I was smiling. I remember that close encounter with electrocution and third-degree burns as one of the few times during my ordeal when I felt genuine happiness.”
It is in these meeting points—in the convergence of faith and the natural
world—that Pi sees God. And though these moments of faith and awe, of fear and trembling, give the story life, at the crux of Life of Pi is the question of doubt and uncertainty Pi explored in the very beginning. When officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport question Pi and do not believe his story, he tells them another… in this cynical and revolting story, the initial survivors are actually Pi’s mother, the cook, and a sailor, and Pi in the end turns to murder and cannibalism to survive. There is no Richard Parker. But which story is the truth?
Pi invites us to make a leap of faith. “If you stumble at mere believability,” he asks, “what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?… Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” Whether or not we believe the story with the tiger, Pi’s point is that it is still the better story. As he says, “And so it goes with God.”
Pi’s message is thus one of commitment, of trust, of a leap of the imagination. We must choose one of the stories; they cannot both be the truth. Just as there is no foolproof way to prove that God exists, there is also no way to prove that He does not. Which, then is the better story?
“Therefore,” answers Saint Augustine, “seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” Perhaps it is unlikely that a tiger and a boy should find themselves on a lifeboat in the Pacific. Yet did it not seem unlikely, in Copernicus and Galileo’s day, that the Earth should revolve around the Sun? Perhaps it seems unlikely, in an age of reason and linearity, that there should be a God so full of love that He came down to Earth and died for humanity. It seems to me that this Story is the story with the tiger… and it is a story that every day, I choose to believe so that I may understand.
Alienor Manteau ’22 is a freshman in