Friday, December 12, 2008

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I have a story that will make you believe in God.

To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

The Life of Pi is narrated by young Piscine (“Pi”) Patel. His family flees India and its unstable politics, and heads for Canada, taking with them all the animals from their zoo. En route, a storm hits their bot and it sinks, leaving only Pi, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a huge Bengal tiger afloat on a lifeboat.

The first third of the story covers the time before Pi's family leaves, and introduces us to his interest in world religions. Although raised as a Hindu, he meets with both a Muslim Cleric and a Catholic priest and finds value in those religions as well. When confronted about the contradictions of subscribing to the three widely variant faiths, he replies, simply, “I just want to love God.”

The second third of the story covers the shipwreck and the time following, during which Pi's adventures read like some modernized version of the Odyssey, complete with his own monsters and cursed islands. These episodes are entertaining, and sometimes quite touching, but the book's real payoff (and literary aspect) comes in the last section, when Pi is rescued. He tells his story to the men, the same story that we have been reading ourselves, but his questioners do not believe him, and press him to tell them what really happened. While claiming that his original story accurately reflected events, he bows to their questioning and tells them another, far darker but more believable story and asks them to choose the one they prefer.

That, I guess, is the central question of the book, which story to choose. Rather than making the reader believe in God, The Life of Pi seeks to give a framework under which belief is reasonable. Pi's fantastical explanations of the events (if one chooses believe the second story is the more literal truth) serve as a method for him to cope with the awful things that have happened. In the same way stories about tigers and living islands allow him to look objectively at subjects like the deaths of his parents, God and religion provide a way to look at life's most elemental tragedies—mortality, illness, sadness—and see more than a series of random happenings. Whether or not such a story will really make you believe in God probably depends on how much you can buy into such an amorphous, inconcrete version of a higher power, but it's still food for thought.


Carlton said...

This review is better than mine.

Gospelnut said...

Pi and his family flee to Canada, not the U.S.A.

Nihil Novum said...

Oh, whoops. Nice catch.