I’ve never been shipwrecked, or out at sea for that matter. But author Yann Matel has written a story that made me experience the hunger, and the thirst, the cold, and the heat, the dryness, and the wetness, the fear, and the joy, the disgust, and the beauty of being lost at sea in his novel Life of Pi. The story, which is centered around antagonist, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel is broken into three parts all told through the eyes of a middle-aged Pi Patel: Pi’s childhood, Pi’s experience in the open sea, and Pi’s conversation with Japanese officials.
I love this book because all the events throughout the story, set in 1977, are so unbelievable that you can’t help but want to believe them. The story-telling is so fantastic that even in the face of doubt you trust his story. I feel what Pi feels, see what Pi sees, smell what Pi smells, and I believe it to be true.
In a question and answer session with Yann Martel, he says that he loves the idea of the name Pi as a nickname for Piscine. Pi tells us the story of his name: his uncle was a lover of swimming and talked of the pools in France, one called “Piscine Molitar“. Martel says, “I liked the irony of a boy named after a rational volume of water being adrift in an uncontrollable volume of water, the Pacific.” Pi spends years of his childhood teased about this name, (sounds like “pissing”) so that when he switches schools he decides to call himself Pi, after the Greek letter used by mathematicians to stand in for an irrational number. Martel says it stuck him that a number used to bring understanding could be called irrational, which is how he sees religion as well: something irrational that helps make sense of things.
Pi was born Hindu, but at 14 he was introduced to Christianity and Islam. He follows all three of these religions because he just “wants to love God.” Pi is searching for meaning in the world and he looks through the lenses of these three religions to help him find perspective on this journey. He sees a portion of truth and a portion of error with each religion but all have similar messages for him.
Pi’s father owns a zoo in Pondicerry, which has provided Pi with a gateway into animal psychology during his youth. When his family decides to sell their animals and move to Canada due to political concerns in India, they board a small Japanese freighter carrying some of their animals. So begins part two of the story.
A few days after leaving India the ship sinks. Pi ends up in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, A spotted hyena, an injured zebra and an orangutan: the only survivors.
During the first few days of Pi’s voyage in open seas he witnesses heinous violence from the hyena, which eats the still living zebra bit-by-bit. The hyena also kills the orangutan in a vicious manner. Then Richard Parker kills the hyena, leaving Pi alone with a 400-pound tiger.
Pi finds food, water and supplies in the lifeboat; steadily the supplies run out and he begins fishing. Pi feeds himself and Richard Parker, he wants to keep Richard Parker alive to avoid complete solitude, but he also know that he cannot outlast Richard Parker and he wants to avoid being eaten. Pi refers to his knowledge of animal psychology and decides he must make sure Richard Parker knows that Pi is the alpha and Richard Parker the omega animal, this way he can keep his territory and hopefully stay alive. He goes through many training sessions with Richard Parker using a whistle, treats, and seasickness to drive the point home.
The story gets very bleak when both Pi and Richard Parker become blind. I believe this was due to bad nutrition and excessive exposure to sun. During his blindness Pi encounters another blind seafarer, a French man with an obsession for meat. Pi naïvely welcomes the man into his boat where the man reveals his cannibalistic nature and becomes a snack for dear old Richard Parker. Two days, and much rinsing with salt water, bring back Pi’s sight.
Then comes the strangest part yet. The pair encounter a mysterious island, seemingly constructed of edible algae supporting a forest and a large population of meercats. Each day Richard Parker and Pi venture onto the island and each night they return to their lifeboat. One night Pi decides to stay on the island at night and sleeps in a tree, which is quickly over run by meercats who also sleep in the trees. When Pi discovers a “fruit” in the tree with a single human molar at the center he discovers the carnivorous nature of the algae and becomes frightened of it. Richard Parker and Pi return to their lifeboat and continue on their way.
Finally the lifeboat reaches the coast of Mexico where Richard Parker escapes into the jungle without so much as a goodbye. Pi is disappointed by this unceremonious departure but is quickly found by his rescuers.
Part three of the story is written like a transcript of an interview (because that is what it is). Two official from the Japanese maritime department question Pi about the sinking of the ship. Pi tells them his story, which they do not believe. In hopes of having his suffering validated, he tells them a second story without the animals. He recounts a story of human brutality, being adrift on a lifeboat with his mother, a sailor with a broken leg, and the ship’s French cook, who killed the sailor and Pi’s mother and cut them up to use as bait and food. Parallels to Pi’s first story lead the Japanese officials to believe that the orangutan represents his mother, the zebra represents the sailor, the hyena represents the cook, and Richard Parker is Pi himself.
After revealing that neither version of Pi’s story ascertains why the ship sank, and that no one can really know the truth, Pi asks which version the officers prefer. They both prefer the version with the animals to the version without animals. Pi thanks them and says, “and so it goes with God.”
Martel shares that he wrote the story to become more and more unbelievable as it goes on. He says that he understands readers will have doubts but hopes they will choose the first story as the better story. For that reason he included something unbelievable in the story we choose to believe.
To me it is interesting that Martel included a cannibalistic Frenchman in both versions of the story. If you interpret his appearance in the first story, when Pi is blind, he might appear to be a ghost of the French cook Pi killed in the second story. Just a thought.
Have you read Life of Pi? What are your interpretations?