|The author of Life of Pi|
By Morris Dean
After reading Yann Martel's 2001 novel Life of Pi, I went back and read Jonathan Price's review of the movie (December 9). I haven't seen the movie yet, but it appears that the movie story and the book story have several significant divergences. It wouldn't do to dwell on them.
The book is structured in three parts, plus a foreword by the author. The foreword appears to abet the fiction that follows, attempting to cast it as a true story that the author learned about from someone he met who told him if he wanted a compelling story to write, he should go find Piscine Molitor Patel. "Pi" could tell him "a story that will make you believe in God."
In Part One, Pi describes his life in India prior to his family's packing up their zoo animals and embarking on a ship to Canada when Pi is sixteen. This part has several mysterious third-person chapters interspersed throughout and set in italics. Slowly it dawns on you who the narrator is and whom he's talking about.
By far the largest part, Part Two describes Pi's adventure in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean after the ship goes down.
And Part Three describes Pi's being interviewed in Mexico by two investigators who are trying to find out why the ship sank.
How Life of Pi attempts to make the reader believe in God is quite clever, and I admire Martel for the attempt. In Part Three, Pi of course tells the investigators the story just recounted in Part Two, but the two men find the story incredible, and they aren't inclined to believe it.
If you have read our review of the movie or perhaps just heard about the movie, you probably know that that story involved Pi's being in a lifeboat with an orangutan, an injured zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. How could anyone survive in a small boat with a Bengal tiger for even a few days? The hyena ate the zebra, and the tiger ate the orangutan and the hyena. It's the food chain in microcosm. The only things that enable small, weak, 16-year-old Pi to rise to the top of the chain in the lifeboat is his brain and his courage. And some luck, of course.
Okay, fair enough that they don't believe his story, Pi says, then proceeds to tell them an alternative story of what happened in the lifeboat, this one involving three other humans instead, including Pi's mother and a cook and a sailor from the ship. Pi then says he'd like to ask the investigators something:
"Yes?" [one of them says]That is, if you think a story in which God exists makes a better story, then you'll likely believe it; if you find an alternative story more to your liking (which may be because it is more credible to you), then you'll likely believe it. Pi, whom Part One has revealed to be a devout Hindu, Muslim, and Christian at the same time—not serially as our reviewer seems to have taken the movie to suggest—thinks that a story in which God exists is far and away preferable to a story in which he does not.
"The Tsimtsum sank on July 2nd, 1977."
"And I arrived on the coast of Mexico, the sole human survivor of the Tsimtsum, on February 14th, 1978."
"I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between."
"Yes, you did."
"Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum."
"Neither makes a factual difference to you."
"You can't prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it."
"I guess so."
"In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer."
"Yes, that's true."
"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."
And the person who supposedly told Yann Martel about Pi's adventure, with the comment that Pi's story will "make you believe in God," obviously felt the same way and seems to have presumed that most people would feel that way. I suppose that still yet in the history of the world, most people probably would.
But I think that this is simply the tautology that if you tend to believe in God, you will probably believe in God, but if you tend not to believe in God, you probably won't. And since the tendency is largely determined by what you're taught and there's still lots of religious teaching going on....
Still, I think the novel's "God analogy" is clever and fairly well done, although I found passages of the book tedious, especially some excessively detailed sections of Part Two. (They might have given their space to a more detailed rendering of the alternative story for what happened in Part Two.)
There are, however, some very interesting things about the first version of the lifeboat adventure—in particular, how Pi was able to tame the tiger by using methods similar to those used in a zoo, which had already been described in Part One. Perhaps because the adventure with the animals (as opposed to mother, cook, and sailor) was told in such convincing detail, I actually found it more believable that Pi was in the lifeboat with the orangutan, zebra, hyena, and tiger than with the other humans. But this could argue against the God analogy as well as it could argue for it. It depends on who's putting the argument.
Copyright © 2013 by Morris Dean
Note: More review of Life of Pi is given in this week's "Thor's Day" column.