Given the recent release of the film version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, you’re probably all familiar with its premise. Young Pi Patel, the son of a zoo owner in Pondicherry, sees no reason he cannot be Christian, Hindu, and Muslim at the same time (“I just want to worship God,” he tells his bewildered parents.) The family decides to escape the civil uproar of 1970s India, and they take a boat with some of their animals from Pondicherry to a new zoo in Toronto. Halfway there, a shipwreck leaves Pi the only human survivor — but he is left on the lifeboat with an orangutan, a wounded zebra, a hyena, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. From then on, Pi must use his faith, his science, and his will to survive in order to live each day with this enormous wild animal, as well as with his own grief, guilt, and loneliness.
I like a high-seas adventure novel as much, or possibly more, than the next girl. And when you add in the psychological stress of taming a tiger, and all the wild-kingdom information that entails, it’s all the better. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Martel made this a book about free will and faith as much as about hunger and urine-splashed boundaries and staring down a 450-pound opponent. When to advance and when to retreat? When to create structure and when to drift in the void? Pi must make these psychological and sometimes metaphysical decisions with Richard Parker and the sea, both utterly physical entities, as his constant companions. This is gripping stuff, light and shadow.
But at the end, after the lifeboat has finally come to shore in Mexico, and Richard Parker has disappeared into the jungle, there’s a final twist. Representatives from the lifeboat company don’t believe Pi’s story, and he knows why: “You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently.” He tells them a new, tiger-free story, one they can believe. Which is the real story? What, in this context, does “real” mean? The true story? The better, more moving story? Which one is which, anyway? The representatives go away chastened, understanding that the better story is the one with the tiger.
Hmmm. I had very seriously mixed feelings about this ending. What, exactly, is Martel saying? All good stories are allegories or parables? All good stories have magic? You could tell a factually true story with no magic in it, but use the same rich description and thrilling language and emotional depth he used in the original story, and still see higher, further, and differently. Try The Worst Journey in the World on for size. No tigers! (But penguins.) Is he saying that stories are necessary for us to survive? Not exactly a new message. Is he saying that by demanding truth, we’re flattening things out for ourselves, making our world pale and uninteresting? That’s sort of a silly message. I fear that, silliest of all, he’s somehow suggesting that faith and reality are incompatible, but I’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt on that score.
I worry that part of this is a question of genre. Perhaps Martel worries his story about faith, free will, a tiger, and the high seas can’t be meaningful unless there’s a vague message at the end, or fears it will be shelved next to Patrick O’Brian and forgotten about. (There are worse fates.) Instead, it won the Man Booker Prize. I guess when it comes to faith, it’s tigers all the way down.