4.29.2008

The Story of Pi

I won’t spend too much time rehashing the plot, as Zach already commented on the mechanics of the book and most people have probably read Life of Pi at least once. The basic outline of the novel is that an Indian boy (so moved to develop a relationship with God that he practices Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam) must leave his home in Asia to start a new life in Canada. The Patel family, along with all the animals from the family zoo, board a modern-day ark/cargo ship and set sail for North America. After 4 days at sea, the ship sinks, the Patel family drowns (minus Pi), and the main character finds himself alone in a lifeboat with only a Bengal tiger as company. The vast majority of the book is devoted to Pi surviving at sea, gory details included. If ever there was a test for a God-loving pluralist, this is it.

Miraculously, Pi survives, both physically and spiritually. His comment on reaching the soft sands of the Mexican shore is that the beach is “like the cheek of God, and somewhere two eyes were glittering with pleasure and a mouth was smiling at having me there.” The novel, to be sure, is filled with Martel’s beautiful descriptions of people, places, and emotions, and his characterization of the modern reaction to zoos and confinement nicely parallels Pi’s marine confinement with a carnivorous cat, but I think that Martel does his best work in the chapters that bookend the ocean narrative. The novel is broken into three parts, with the opening chapters describing Pi’s life in India, his family zoo, and the way in which people tend to feel pity for animals in artificial environments. Pi’s passionate defense of zoos inevitably leads to one of the most integral quotations of this first part of the book: “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both” (19). The message is that agnostics and atheists look at people practicing religion as animals in a cage, lacking the ability to move about freely in a world with innumerable choices. The existence of a choice, however, does not make it a viable and healthy option, and Pi’s assertion that a properly maintained zoo enclosure is ultimately a liberating experience for an animal (because it frees them from lives of compulsion and necessity in the wild) parallels his defense of religion, freeing human lives by emancipating them from enslavement to baser (animal) passions.

In the third part of the novel, Pi, after washing upon Mexican shores, is visited by two Japanese businessmen from the company who owned the cargo ship. They are interested solely in hearing Pi’s tale so they can determine the cause for the sinking of the ship. After hearing Pi’s version of the events, they bristle with confusion and doubt over the “believability” of the events related to them. They call his tale a “story,” and ask again to know “what really happened” to the boy. Pi assumes they want another story, but the men say no, because Japanese stories have an element of “invention” in them, and these businessmen want only the facts. Pi argues that life can be deemed a “story” while still reflecting factual reality. In fact, the word story is derived from the Latin historia, essentially meaning a record of events. It is the Japanese businessmen who give Pi’s tale the epithet of “untrue” or “unbelievable” simply because they cannot fathom that such a series of events would happen. Isn’t the same true of scientists, who tell of their own experiences with the natural world, precluding the occurrence or existence of a possibility that has not yet been tested within the confines of this “story?” Like the Japanese businessmen, scientists too often hear the word “story” when a person begins to speak of religion; the two terms become conflated, and both are deemed at odds with “fact.” Pi is saying that a story need not be seen as anathema to truth.

Pi, ever polite, obliges the men with a rendition of the facts in which the animals aboard the lifeboat are actually humans from the cargo ship. This story is far more gruesome, with murder and cannibalism, a picture of human nature at its lowest point. At the tale’s conclusion, Pi offers the Japanese men the choice of two stories, “with animals or without.” It is interesting that these are the options named, not a story with animals or a story with humans. The Japanese businessmen, the “scientists” who search Pi’s story for facts, assume that the tale of cannibalism and barbary must be true because it aligns with their experience of human nature, of life as “nasty, brutish, and short.” But the men know, in their hearts, that the narrative of Pi taming the tiger, overcoming that base and primitive portion of the human soul, is more palatable. This does not necessarily automatically exclude it from reality. It is the better story, the two men decide, and Pi replies “So it goes with God.” Perhaps the idea is that men, like animals, prefer the civilizing and morally elevating effects of religious “confinement,” a cage that ironically allows men to be freer than a life of sin ever could. The reluctance to enter this cage is expressed as the desire to equate a religious life with the unbelievable, with something that is essentially at odds with human nature, as something that requires more of men than they are able to give. “If you stumble at mere believability,” Pi had asked the Japanese businessman earlier in the interview, “what are you living for?...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?” (297).

That is Pi’s query posed to the businessmen, and that is the question posed to the reader by Life of Pi. Although more spiritual than religious, the book is a welcome respite from the hackneyed tale of the unrequited wanderings of modern youth. Despite initial misgivings, I did enjoy the book. However, I found it to be more palatable in the digestion of its message rather than during actual reading.

18 comments:

Zachary said...

Very well said!

I don't think our interpretations are mutually exclusive.

Zachary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zachary said...

By the way

good burn

way to properly interpret the quote I used.

Zachary said...

I misunderstood the book! You are my hero.

Ol' Blue said...

I visited the Washington National Zoo this past Saturday. It wasn't long into our visit before the girl I went with and I broke from people watching and turned to the inevitable zoo questions: Do you think the hippopotamus--my he's large--likes living in his cage? But how about the monkey? Do they miss their "natural" homes?
I, for one, have not read Life of Pi, but retrospecting to last Saturday, the parallels between human freedom and caged animals are now coming fast and furious. Your post touched on many parallels, and I agree with most of them.
I have difficulty swallowing, hook , line and sinker, the idea of freedom qua cage, or in other words, freedom from necessity and the baser (animal) passions. I am reminded of one of my favorite passages from Tolstoy (of whom I have only read 40 pages in total): The man from the country, Levin, is in the midst of an extravagant and drawn out dinner, and has just spoken to his cousin, Stepan the urbanite, about how queer he finds such comforts: "Why, of course," objected Stepan Arkadyevitch. "But that's just the aim of civilization-to make everything a source of enjoyment."
Levin: "Well, if that's its aim, I'd rather be a savage."
Can freedom really be pure cage? Virtue, perhaps, but freedom? For better and worse, it would seem at least part savage. Maybe I'm just being irresponsible.
David Brooks' On Paradise Drive talks about the freedom of Bobos.

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