Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel
Life of Pi isn't a character-driven book. Meaning, Martel doesn't devote the majority of his efforts to digging deep into the characters' minds. Sure, we can love Pi's humor and good nature, but these character traits also function as open doorways for Martel's ideas. In most philosophical novels, the character is more or less his ideas. This doesn't make the character any better or any worse – just a different literary creation.
Think of it this way: either ideas battle it out and deepen through a character, or the character deepens through his encounters with ideas, events, etc. We think Pi is of the first sort. Sure, he's smarter and wiser by the end of the book – and he does develop as a character – but we still think ideas are Martel's first priority. In talking about some of the major ideas Pi encounters and adopts, we'll hopefully clarify both the ideas themselves and, at the same time, essential parts of Pi's character.
This kid has one of the most magical childhoods ever. Who gets to grow up as a zookeeper's son? People like Pi exist only in National Public Radio Land or in obscure documentaries. Part of the magic of Pi's childhood, of course, results from his environment: the zoo and the liveliest of all lively countries where he lives, India. If America is a melting pot, India is a jewel-encrusted statue. Democracy, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, a new rationality and progress: all these elements are present and haven't been mixed beyond recognition. The word pluralism comes to mind.
Pi internalizes his country. A character could very well react differently to India: it could overwhelm him, the poverty could instill deep depression and hopelessness. Pi doesn't focus on these things. He's so positive! Instead, the abundance of the world entrances him (and perhaps the reader along with him). Pi later studies Religion and Zoology at the University of Toronto, but he actually studies these disciplines the second he gets out of the womb. His tolerance, religious inquisitiveness, and joy astound us.
Pi the Scientist
So what ideas bump up against each other in Pi? An amazing assortment: science, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam probably take the top slots. Science doesn't play as huge a role early on for Pi. More so, he watches Mr. Kumar the biologist drool over the order of the universe. He internalizes the science of zookeeping: how animals react, why they flee, and so on. Of course, all this will become essential knowledge when Pi decides to train Richard Parker. And when Pi needs to take stock of his supplies and figure out just how he's going to survive. Science and rationality become tools to manipulate the world around him.
We suspect science contends more with religion and spirituality in this book, as opposing worldviews, than with the intangibles of Pi's character. Does the rationality of science go hand in hand with Pi's irrational behavior and psychology? Or does it lock head with the beliefs Pi adopts?
Pi the Christian
Like science and zoology, other childhood interests come to Pi's aid during his ordeal. In Part 1, Chapter 17, Pi meets Father Martin. Well, he meets someone else, too: "I was fourteen years old – and a well-content Hindu on a holiday – when I met Jesus Christ" (1.17.2). Through Father Martin Pi converts to Christianity (though "conversion" sounds odd since he doesn't leave Hinduism behind). In this conversion, he learns about Christ – how this Christian god suffered and died out of love for his creation. Pi initially doesn't understand why a god would suffer. Don't mortals do that sort of thing? But the very questions he's asking lead him to the beauty of Christianity.
Sure enough, Christian beliefs assist Pi in the lifeboat, just as science does. He truly learns how to suffer, and that suffering can have a touch of the divine in it. Sure, Pi will have some low points in the lifeboat, but he also has a divine example to follow. Suffering becomes a part of him, like an appendage or a beautiful deformity. You see it especially in the chapters set in Canada. The author interviews a quiet, almost withdrawn, Pi – as if he's closed off access to these memories of suffering.
Pi the Hindu and Muslim
Pi never really leaves Hinduism behind. Rather, it informs and combines with his later religions. The rituals of his Catholic-Christian religion have a precedent in the highly ritualistic Hindu religion. But he also discusses, at length, the intersection of Brahman saguna (the divine in the world) with atman (the divine in humans). – like science –We'll say it bluntly: this is important. Pi craves contact with the divine. The book swerves toward the divine and then away. Isn't this what believers feel? Occasional contact with God and then exile? Both Christianity and Hinduism seem to combine in Pi's practice and encounter with Islam. The utter physicality of Islamic worship ("Hot-weather yoga for the Bedouins" (1.18.14)) recalls the garlands and bells of Hinduism and the principle of incarnation in Christianity. Father Martin also explains to Pi that Christ does everything for love. In a gorgeously simple moment, Mr. Kumar explains Islam to Pi:
"What's your religion about?" I asked.
His eyes lit up. "It is about the Beloved," he replied.
I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion. (1.19.2-1.19.4)
We watch Pi find similarities between these religions. Someone else might just have easily found differences and contradictions. But Pi's tendency to find the good in most things, allows for an unexpected harmony between contentious faiths. If there's a moment when Pi uses Islam as a guide, as a moral compass, it's with Richard Parker. Talk about brotherhood. It's perhaps the oddest friendship we've come across in recent literature.
Pi at Sea
In Part 2 of the book, we encounter different parts of Pi's character. Pi certainly retains his inquisitiveness and general joy, but suffering becomes almost daily trial. Starvation and thirst, fear of Richard Parker and the other animals, reveal a sharper edge of Pi. His survival instinct really kicks in. Don't get us wrong: Pi still loves life, cracks jokes, and worships with abandon. But he also has to do some pretty unsavory things to survive. Necessity begets violence and Pi slices up turtles and fish like it's nothing. We have a hard time imagining Pi stepping on an ant in Pondicherry; but at sea, he picks up a shark by its tail and feeds it to Richard Parker.
We'd also like to point out how cunning Pi becomes at sea. His eureka moment happens when he decides to train Richard Parker instead of kill him. It's smart and kind, but it's also cunning. His endurance, too, complicates his earlier carefree attitude. You simply can't endure that much suffering and still float through life light as a feather. Pi comes close, but simply put, the ocean changes him.
Pi's ordeal doesn't obscure his religion(s) or his love of science and the world but instead forces him to put these into practice. Christianity now has to show Pi the redemptive qualities of suffering. Hinduism shows him the rituals of survival. Islam, the way to the Beloved even if the Beloved wants to kill you. If you consider Pi's second (animal-less) story the true one, the one devoid of a coping mechanism, consisting of only the facts, Pi unleashes a fearful, despairing, and bloody self. Richard Parker could actually be Pi. But for all the details on that, check out Richard Parker's "Character Analysis." In any event, you can see how, in what seems almost like a controlled experiment, Martel throws certain elements into conflict within the character of Pi: religion, science, and our brutal instincts.
Pi in Mexico
More than in any other part of the novel, Pi drops knowledge like it's hot in Part 3. If you didn't believe us at first that Pi works as a part-time megaphone for Martel's ideas about fiction and religion, return to Part 3. This section is a philosophical dialogue in the spirit of Plato's Socratic dialogues. Which is a brilliant move on Martel's part (and certainly draws on his background in philosophy).
So Pi seems wildly smart for a sixteen-year-old boy here. But he also survived and processed a wildly traumatic event. (Didn't Keats say something like suffering is the valley of soul-making? Or was that James Brown?) Though Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba's doubt, Pi develops his ideas of fiction and faith. It's an utterly complex moment in the book. Perhaps we can this is where psychology, character development, and the philosophical concerns of Martel's work intersect in one blinding instant. (Like the lightning striking the Pacific in Part 2).
Does Pi deny the brutal events at sea? He corners – through some wily talk – Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba into a sort of agreement: the story with animals is better than the story without animals. And likewise, a story of our lives that includes God is better than a story of our lives without God.
But is this all smart maneuvering to deny, for example, the cowardice and bloodlust he displays in the second version of events? Or do we say – along with Pi and the investigators – the first story is the better one. It's more beautiful. It explains more. And the combination of those two perhaps makes it more truthful. How you interpret this moment will affect your view of Pi as a character. In a way, Pi's a tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which the reader can project either a rationalistic, secular temperament or a religious, faith-filled one. (Check out this interview with Martel for more on that subject.)
So, which version of the story do you chose to believe?