Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Animals = Humans
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Pi tells the Japanese investigators a horrific, factual version of his ordeal in Chapter 99. It takes about seven pages. As Martel has stated in one interview, he pushes his readers to make a leap of faith as the novel's events get more and more unlikely. (Check out the interview here.) We have to make a leap of faith – meaning, we have to take Pi for his word – in order to finish the novel without saying, "Oh, this must be Pi's imagination now," or "Martel's using allegory now." Martel and Pi test our latent incredulity with the blind Frenchman and the algae island. When the Japanese investigators question Pi and he tells an alternate version of the story, we're being given The Ultimate Test. We at Shmoop didn't pass the test the first time we read the novel. But now that we know it's a test, we could pass it. No problem.
Pi could have come up with whole Richard Parker story, right? He's a sixteen-year-old boy who experiences some very traumatic events. This is his way of coping. So he invents animals for each survivor of the Tsimtsum. Here's the crucial exchange between Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba:
[Mr. Okamoto:] "The blind Frenchman they met in the other lifeboat – didn't he admit to killing a man and a woman?"
[Mr. Chiba:] "Yes, he did."
[Mr. Okamoto:] "The cook killed the sailor and his mother."
[Mr. Chiba:] "Very impressive."
[Mr. Okamoto:] "His stories match."
[Mr. Chiba:] "So the Taiwanese sailor is the zebra, his mother is the orang-utan, the cook is...the hyena – which means he's the tiger!"
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Yes. The tiger killed the hyena – and the blind Frenchman – just as he killed the cook" (3.99.299-305).
Through Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba we get a very clear explanation of the possible allegory. Pi, because he kills the cook, imagines himself as a terrible and violent tiger. It makes his viciousness, his instinct for survival, at a safe distance. And the viciousness of the cook inhabits the hyena. Perhaps Pi can deal better with both the suffering of the Taiwanese sailor and the murder of his mother if he transforms these people into animals with human qualities. It makes so much sense.
However, Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba are by no means heroes in this novel. In fact, they're a little ridiculous. They're a bumbling Abbot and Costello who can't see the beauty and importance of Pi's original story and have to be led to faith. Or, if not faith, at least to a point where they admit that the story with the animals makes a better story.
There's a sense in which the first story is the truer story. For one, Martel spends 150 pages on it, throws in some outlandishly beautiful details, and survival methods from real castaways. It's not a summary. It's the real deal fleshed out and made whole. Which is sort of what faith does for a wafer of bread in the Catholic religion. Secondly, Martel more or less actually cautions against reading the book as an allegory in a number of interviews (like this Radio Praha interview, and this interview on YouTube). Granted, he also says in one interview, "You decide which story is real," but you can probably guess which story that is (Guardian Interview). So you can believe the second story without animals. But then Yann Martel won't be your friend.