It's a misery peculiar to would-be writers. Your theme is good, as are your sentences. [...]. The dialogue zips along, crackling with tension. The descriptions burst with color, contrast and telling detail. Really, your story can only be great. But it all adds up to nothing. In spite of the obvious, shining promise of it, there comes a moment when you realize that the whisper that has been pestering you all along from the back of your mind is speaking the flat, awful truth: it won't work. An element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story [...]. Your story is emotionally dead, that's the crux of it. The discovery is something soul-destroying, I tell you. It leaves you with an aching hunger. (Author's Note.1.7)
Even with all the technique in the world (or out-of-this-world technique), a story will sputter and die if it doesn't have passion. It's an odd fact of literature, according to Martel: feeling matters more than skill.
This second time to India I knew better what to expect and I knew what I wanted: I would settle in a hill station and write my novel. [...]. The weather would be just right, requiring a light sweater mornings and evenings, and something short-sleeved midday. Thus set up, pen in hand, for sake of greater truth, I would turn Portugal into a fiction. That's what fiction is about, isn't it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence? What need did I have to go to Portugal? (Author's Note.1.5)
The transformation of reality is essential to this novel. The argument goes something like this: when we transform reality, we present it more truthfully. Or, when we describe something like Portugal, we describe the actual Portugal more fully. Try telling this to someone the next time you get caught in a lie.
Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was not at all like that. He was very kind. He served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story. (1.17.13)
Pi sees in Christianity a drive to contain all lower-case "stories" in a single upper-case "Story." How is Life of Pi itself an upper-case Story? How can a single Story contain a multitude of stories?
I can well imagine an atheist's last words: "White, white! L-L-Love! My God!" – and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, "Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain," and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (1.22.1)
Faith and storytelling – or rather listening to stories – mix constantly in this novel. Pi ridicules the agnostic for suspending belief and thus missing the more riveting interpretation of death. Though it's worth wondering what role the true story plays in all this. Even if it is a more boring story.
My greatest wish – other than salvation – was to have a book. A long book with a never-ending story. One I could read again and again, with new eyes and a fresh understanding each time. Alas, there was no scripture in the lifeboat. [...]. At the very least, if I had had a good novel! But there was only the survival manual, which I must have read a thousand times over the course of my ordeal. (2.73.1-2)
Great books continue on indefinitely – not because the reader never runs out of pages – because we can read them "again and again, with new eyes and a fresh understanding each time" (2.73.1). It's a starling version of infinity. Much like Pi's name: 3.14159265...which, as an irrational number, never settles after the decimal point.
That was my last entry. I went on from there, endured, but without noting it. Do you see these invisible spirals on the margins of the page? I thought I would run out of paper. It was the pens that ran out. (2.89.4)
Through Pi's diary, Martel comments on writing. Some of the most important stuff in a novel or poem is what the author leaves unsaid. Pi provides us with a startling image of his unspoken despair: invisible spirals in the margin of the page.
What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. [...]. It's important to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. (2.94.5)
Art doesn't always have to be harmonious. Think of the screeching guitars of punk or the white noise of experimental rock. But Pi – and presumably Martel – believes that when it comes to goodbyes (read: the last chapter), you must unburden your heart. Do you think Pi tells everything? What would it mean for Martel to tell everything?
Mr. Okamoto: "But for the purposes of our investigation, we would like to know what really happened.
[Pi:] "What really happened?"
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Yes."
[Pi:] "So you want another story?"
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Uhh...no. We would like to know what really happened."
[Pi:] "Doesn't the telling of something always become a story?"
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Uhh...perhaps in English. In Japanese a story would have an element of invention in it. We don't want any invention. We want the 'straight facts,' as you say in English."
[Pi:] "Isn't telling about something – using words, English or Japanese – already an invention? Isn't just looking upon this world already something of an invention?
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Uhh..."
[Pi:] "The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn't that make life a story?" (3.99.205-14)
Pi makes a claim here that no matter how we present the events of our lives, we're always telling a story. That there's no such thing as "just the facts." And when we present "just the facts," we're actually telling a version of events (also known as a story). Do you agree? Can one version be more truthful than another? And what does it mean, in this situation, to be truthful?
[Pi:] "So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?"
Mr. Okamoto: "That's an interesting question..."
Mr. Chiba: "The story with animals."
Mr. Okamoto: "Yes. The story with the animals is the better story."
Pi Patel: "Thank you. And so it goes with God." (3.99.429-33)
Whoa. Mr. Pi Patel moves pretty quick here. Pi has said plenty already about how we interpret reality anyway and how we might as well choose the better story. But Pi – our clever sampler of world religions – takes it a step further. He argues a world with God makes a better story than a world without God. In cases where we have no definite proof, Pi says the best fiction is the best reality. Is Pi pulling a fancy trick? Or does he have a point?
"I know what you want. 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. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality." (3.99.224)
The Japanese investigators don't believe Pi's story. However, Pi responds in a surprising way: factuality only confirms what we already know. A story, however, makes us "see higher or further or differently." Notice also the adjectives "dry" and "yeastless" (3.99.224). A good story, according to Pi, expands and rises like bread. Sounds like a valuable commodity given that our narrator barely survived starvation.
I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, looking up at sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing. (1.1.7)
Pi often sees a deep spirituality in the animal world. At one point, Pi compares Richard Parker to a yogi (see Themes: Man and Natural World 2.61.19). It's the calm and engagement of sloths and tigers that Pi admires. Even though science leads Pi to these discoveries, it doesn't quite explain them. Pi needs religion and imagination to usher him into the spiritual lives of other beings.
I remained faithful to my aquatic guru. Under his watchful eye I lay on the beach and fluttered my legs and scratched away at the sand with my hands, turning my head at every stroke to breathe. I must have looked like a child throwing a peculiar, slow-motion tantrum. In the water, as he held me on the surface, I tried my best to swim. It was much more difficult than on land. (1.3.7)
Don't forget, on a practical level, how important Pi's swimming lessons are. If Pi never learned to swim, his survival wouldn't have happened. We're not saying that Pi's survival, on a more allegorical level, doesn't have to do with faith or a journey of faith. The lifeboat, Richard Parker, and the ocean all test Pi's faith. Or, put another way, they test his ability to swim in a foreign element.
A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate. It has never stopped growing since that day. (1.16.1)
Pi Patel embraces all aspects of the world. For some, a germ of religious exaltation would mean conversion to a particular religion. For Pi, such a germ means multiple religions and an all-encompassing faith. He can't get enough of faith, so he adds one religion after another. If Pi's faith were a dessert, it'd be a banana split. If Pi's faith were a piece of cloth, it'd be a crazy quilt. We'll stop there.
I was giving up. I would have given up – if a voice hadn't made itself heard in my heart. The voice said, "I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen." (2.53.5)
Each day Pi survives is a miracle. We watch as Pi's daily routine of survival takes on the quality of spiritual exercises like prayer or fasting. His feasts, especially turtle blood, become sacramental. The everyday – at least if you're on a lifeboat for 227 days – is miraculous.
It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start with was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness. (2.57.1)
Richard Parker, the creature who constantly threatens Pi's life, eventually provides Pi with rich companionship. Pi takes a major tribulation and turns it into a spiritual gift. It's as if Pi is also saying: God, who has a very, very forbidding presence, can be peace, wholeness, and a lot of other happy things.
I had to stop hoping so much that a ship would rescue me. I should not count on outside help. Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway's worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little. Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one's life away. (2.58.9)
You can imagine reading a slightly altered version of this passage in a mystical text: "Reside in your own soul. Peace is within. Keep to the task at hand and the spirit will follow. To do what is immediate and close at hand is to experience God." OK. We admit we're getting a little carried away. But Life of Pi does at times seem like a survival manual for the spirit. And this is one of those times.
Much becomes expendable. You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you're at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you're the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish. (2.78.9)
Pi gets pretty lofty and spiritual, but he always remains grounded. It's a like the Buddhist master telling his student to contemplate a sandal. Hours pass. Suddenly the master smacks the young charge across the face with the sandal. The master shouts: "Did you forget about the existence of the sandal?" Pi has similar revelations. Hunger, thirst, the realities of everyday existence actually contribute to his spiritual enlightenment.
"Praise be to Allah, Lord of All Worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Ruler of Judgment Day!" I muttered. To Richard Parker I shouted, "Stop your trembling! This is miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity. This is...this is..." I could not find what it was, this thing so vast and fantastic. (2.85.6)
Lightning has just struck the ocean. It is fantastic. One infinite thing – the sky – has come in contact with the seemingly infinite ocean. Earlier, Pi describes (see Themes: Religion 1.16.48) the way the divine in humans seeks the divine in nature. He gets giddy about the connection between the spiritual force within him touching the spiritual force of God, which is expressed in animals, trees, or a handful of earth. We're not sure Richard Parker is as amused.
By the time morning came, my grim decision was taken. I preferred to set off and perish in search of my own kind than to live a lonely half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death on this murderous island. (2.92.143)
The seaweed island has brought Pi and Richard Parker back from the brink of serious malnourishment. But Pi sees the island as rapacious – and full of loneliness – which amounts to spiritual death. Physical comfort isn't enough for Pi. He needs companionship and human contact. Richard Parker isn't cutting it anymore.
[Pi:] "The arrogance of you big-city folk! You grant your metropolises all the animals of Eden, buy you deny my hamlet the merest Bengal tiger!"
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Mr. Patel, please calm down."
[Pi:] "If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe?"
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Mr. Patel – "
[Pi:] "Don't you bully me with your politeness! 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?" (3.99.109-113)
Pi loves to argue with Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba (well, mainly with Mr. Okamoto). Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba doubt Pi's story, which really insults Pi. In response, Pi asserts one of the guiding principles of his life. The most beautiful and important experiences are "hard to believe," but that doesn't mean they're illusions. Love and God are hard to believe. The existence of human beings also seems like a miracle. Whether or not Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba agree with the rest of what Pi says, Pi's own existence – at this point – is a miracle.
I never had problems with my fellow scientists. Scientists are a friendly, atheistic, hard-working, beer-drinking lot whose minds are preoccupied with sex, chess and baseball when they are not preoccupied with science. (1.1.9)
Pi has just criticized his fellow religious-studies students for being "muddled agnostics" and "in the thrall of reason." Here he praises his fellow scientists. Does Pi consider science a type of faith? What is it that he admires about his scientist friends? And why does he have such a distaste for agnosticism?
My majors were religious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed. My zoology thesis was a functional analysis of the thyroid gland of the three-toed sloth. I chose the sloth because its demeanor – calm, quiet and introspective – did something to soothe my shattered self. (1.1.2)
Martel couldn't mix science and religion any more conspicuously: "My majors were religious studies and zoology." But he does subtly intermingle the two in the sentences that follow. Isaac Luria is a mystic but he's also obsessed with how the universe began, which happens to be a scientific endeavor. The thyroid glands of three-toed sloths clearly sounds like zoology. The demeanor of the sloth, however, adds spiritual interest. Pi can't stay away from religion. He also can't stay away from science.
And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge. (1.5.41)
Notice how Pi names himself after an elusive and irrational number. When Pi praises science – or math and reason – these tools are never ends in themselves. Science has the workings of faith and combats agnosticism just like religion. Or, as in this passage, math brings us to the mysterious, the irrational and elusive.
[Mr. Kumar to Pi:] "When I was your age, I lived in bed, racked with polio. I asked myself every day, 'Where is God? Where is God? Where is God?' God never came. It wasn't God who saved me – it was medicine. Reason is my prophet and it tells me that as a watch stops, so we die. It's the end. If the watch doesn't work properly, it must be fixed here and now by us. One day we will take hold of the means of production and there will be justice on earth." (1.7.16)
Mr. Kumar shares – quite openly – his personal story. The story perhaps helps Pi to see why Mr. Kumar attaches himself so fiercely to science. Science saved him from polio, not God. If we want to improve our lot on earth, we need to use tools of this earth: science and reason, not divine revelation. Even though Pi must disagree with Mr. Kumar, he still takes some of it to heart. During his ordeal on the ocean Pi says, "Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway's worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little. [...]. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one's life away." (see Themes: Spirituality 2.58.9)
[Mr. Kumar to Pi:] "There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience. A clear intellect, close attention to detail and a little scientific knowledge will expose religion as superstitious bosh. God does not exist." (1.7.12)
Pi's biology teacher, Mr. Kumar, rails against religion. Pi doesn't know what to say. We know Pi admires Mr. Kumar quite a lot, but we also know Pi has a deep belief in God. When Pi takes stock of his supplies on the lifeboat, he organizes and lists with a scientific fervor. We might even say with "[a] clear intellect, close attention to detail and a little scientific knowledge" (1.7.12). For Pi, these tools don't necessarily mean that God doesn't exist. All harmonize in his democratic little noggin.
He was a regular visitor who read the labels and descriptive notices in their entirety and approved of every animal he saw. Each to him was a triumph of logic and mechanics, and nature as a whole was an exceptionally fine illustration of science. To his ears, when an animal felt the urge to mate, it said "Gregor Mendel", recalling the father of genetics, and when it was time to show its mettle, "Charles Darwin", the father of natural selection, and what we took to bleating, grunting, hissing, snorting, roaring, growling, howling, chirping and screeching were but the thick accents of foreigners. When Mr. Kumar visited the zoo, it was always to take the pulse of the universe, and his stethoscopic mind always confirmed to him that everything was in order, that everything was order. (1.7.2)
Pi's biology teacher sees the world in a certain way: as ordered, and alive with the precepts of science. Pi revels in the various and contradictory worldviews of his friends and teachers: the other Mr. Kumar sees God's sacred creation in the zoo. The animals must see something entirely different. Pi's father sees a business. For Pi, science, like religion, is a system of thought we place on the world to understand it. Pi delights in all these systems of thought and creates relgio-scientific patchwork of belief. Sounds complicated, but Pi simply delights in all forms of faith – and he thinks science is no different than religion.
His name was Satish Kumar. These are common names in Tamil Nadu, so the coincidence is not so remarkable. Still, it pleased me that this pious baker, as plain as a shadow and of solid health, and the Communist biology teacher and science devotee, the walking mountain on stilts, sadly afflicted with polio in his childhood, carried the same name. [...]. Mr. and Mr. Kumar were the prophets of my Indian youth. (1.20.2)
In yet another example where Pi equates religion and science, the biology teacher and the Muslim holy man have the same name. Why is it wondrous and unexpected for an Indian boy from Tamil Nadu to have a Muslim and a biologist as the prophets of his youth? Is there anything odd about that? Shouldn't Pi at least have a Hindu teacher as one of his prophets?
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Your island is botanically impossible."
[Pi:] "Said the fly just before landing in the Venus flytrap."
[Mr. Okamoto:] "Why has no one else come upon it?"
[Pi:] "It's a big ocean crossed by busy ships. I went slowly, observing much."
[Mr. Okamoto:] "No scientist would believe you."
[Pi:] "These would be the same who dismissed Copernicus and Darwin. Have scientists finished coming upon new plants? In the Amazon basin, for example?" (3.99.51-56)
To Pi, Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba have a limited view of science. The Japanese investigators think that science's method of rational inquiry discredits the miraculous. However, Pi thinks of science differently. He sees science as yet another gateway to the wondrous and miraculous. Perhaps it's not so hard to see his point. When Copernicus removed the earth from the celestial center of the universe, people must have been shocked. Because science brings us to new and undiscovered things, Pi's thinks science encourages our faith in the "hard to believe" (see Themes: Spirituality 3.99.109-113).
[Mr. Okamoto:] "We're just being reasonable."
[Pi:] "So am I! I applied my reason at every moment. Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater." (3.99.114-115)
Nice rebuttal, Pi. Mr. Pi Patel admits to reason's effectiveness: it helped him get food and water; it helped him train Richard Parker; all said, it let him fight for his own survival. But Pi also thinks Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba should be careful with reason. Sure, it's an effective tool. Perhaps because reason is so effective, it tempts us to use only it to understand the world. However, if we limit our understanding of the world to what reason can explain, we'll miss some amazing things. For Pi, those include God, the miraculous, and his story.
The pink boy got the nod from the Rhodes Scholarship committee. I love him and I hope his time at Oxford was a rich experience. If Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, one day favours me bountifully, Oxford is fifth on the list of cities I would like to visit before I pass on, after Mecca, Varanasi, Jerusalem and Paris. (1.1.11)
Oxford is a world center for scholarship. Jerusalem is the holy city for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mecca is where the prophet Muhammad was born. Hindus regard Varanasai as a holy city. Paris houses the pool Pi was named after. How do these cities relate to Pi's obsessions? Do these cities inform each other? For example, does the juxtaposition of Oxford next to these holy cities give science and scholarship a little bit of a halo? Just a tiny one?
My life is like a memento mori painting from European art: there is always a grinning skull at my side to remind me of the folly of human ambition. I mock this skull. I look at it and I say, "You've got the wrong fellow. You may not believe in life, but I don't believe in death. Move on!" (1.1.11)
A "memento mori" is an object – such as a skull – used to remind us of death. We know, we know: European art can be so gloomy. Here Pi says his own life has become a memento mori painting. Meaning, the events of his life only seem to remind him of death. But Pi doesn't stop there. True to form, Pi mocks his memento mori and says he doesn't "believe in death." Can you blame him? He survived for 227 days on the ocean. Death be not proud and all that.
But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in his mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? (1.17.21)
Pi struggles with the tenets of the Christian faith. How could its God suffer and die? Isn't that what God gets to avoid? Don't humans suffer and die while pining for the white light and glory of heaven? Pi's acceptance of Christianity, in some ways, prepares him for his own suffering and near-death experience on the Pacific. Christ elevates what Pi thought were solely human events: death and the suffering leading up to death.
The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene; it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. [...]. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you. (2.56.4)
This could have easily gone under "Themes: Fear." However, Pi struggles here with a particular type of fear: the fear of death. He realizes he must confront this particular fear – embodied, perhaps, by Richard Parker – or it will "nestle in [his] [...] memory like gangrene." Translated: Pi must become Richard Parker's master. Which he does in the very next chapter. Pi starts THE PI PATEL INDO-CANADIAN TRANS-PACIFIC FLOATING CIRCUS, whose sole goal is to train and subdue the deadly Richard Parker.
You may be astonished that in such a short period of time I could go from weeping over the muffled killing of a flying fish to gleefully bludgeoning to death a dorado. I could explain it by arguing that profiting from a pitiful flying fish's navigational mistake made me shy and sorrowful, while the excitement of actively capturing a great dorado made me sanguinary and self-assured. But in point of fact the explanation lies elsewhere. It is simple and brutal: a person can get used to anything, even killing. (2.61.32)
We think it's cute and heartbreaking how much trouble Pi has killing his first flying fish. He cries. He compares himself to Cain. He wraps the fish in a blanket so he doesn't have to see it. But Pi changes drastically. In later chapters he drinks hawksbill blood, eats human flesh, and throws a shark to Richard Parker. The kid gets tough. However, Pi returns to a strict vegetarian diet once his ordeal ends. Do you think Pi still carries guilt over the fish and animals he had to slaughter? Or does he see his actions as simply necessary for his and Richard Parker's survival?
Lord, to think that I'm a strict vegetarian. To think that when I was a child I always shuddered when I snapped open a banana because it sounded to me like the breaking of an animal's neck. I descended to a level of savagery I never imagined possible. (2.66.9)
Pi must have been a sensitive child. Or a morbid one. Think for a moment about the contradictory attitudes Pi takes toward living creatures. On the one hand, he cares for Richard Parker like Richard Parker is family. On the other hand, he bludgeons fish and snaps the necks of birds. So are these attitudes really contradictory? Can you care deeply for one living creature while killing others?
When rough weather abates, and it becomes clear that you have survived the sky's attack and the sea's treachery, your jubilation is tempered by the rage that so much fresh water should fall directly into the sea and by the worry that it is the last rain you will ever see, that you will die of thirst before the next drop falls. (2.78.6)
It's easy to forget how precious Pi's supplies of food and water are to him. At times he has stores and stores of rainwater and biscuits and turtles from the sea. At any moment, however, things can take a turn for the worse. It doesn't rain for weeks. He can't catch any fish. Then Pi sees, between half-empty bags of rainwater and biscuit packages, his own death staring back at him.
Only death consistently excites your emotions, whether contemplating it when life is safe and stale, or fleeing it when life is threatened and precious. (2.78.8)
Pi thinks this little thought right after he discusses the twin emotions of boredom and terror (see Themes: Fear 2.78.7). Death becomes an escape when the ocean is calm; when catastrophe occurs, it's something Pi can flee. Why does Pi have such a complicated relationship with death? Is death – almost – the third resident on the lifeboat?
One of my favorite methods of escape was what amounts to gentle asphyxiation. I used a piece of cloth that I cut from the remnants of a blanket. I called it my dream rag. I wet it with sea water so that it was soaked but not dripping. [...]. I would fall into a daze, not difficult for someone in such an advanced state of lethargy to begin with. But the dream rag gave a special quality to my daze. It must have been the way it restricted my air intake. I would be visited by the most extraordinary dreams, trances, visions, thoughts, sensations, remembrances. And time would be gobbled up. (2.87.1)
Oh, this is weird. By gently asphyxiating himself, does Pi experiences multiple small deaths? Or is the dream rag part of a peculiar religious ceremony? (As in: Pi the priest induces a hallucinogenic state so he can experience the divine.) Could it be a little bit of both? In either case, Pi really, really wants to escape from the tedium of the lifeboat.
We perished away. It happened slowly, so that I didn't notice it all the time. But I noticed it regularly. We were two emaciated mammals, parched and starving. Richard Parker's fur lost its luster, and some of it even fell away from his shoulders and haunches. He lost a lot of weight, became a skeleton in an oversized bag of faded fur. I, too, withered away, the moistness sucked out of me, my bones showing plainly through my thin flesh. (2.89.2)
Sometimes we think of death as instantaneous. One minute the dorado is alive and flapping around and the next it's not. But Pi and Richard Parker slowly morph into reminders of death. They become walking, breathing skeletons who remind each other of death's slow deterioration. When you and your best pal both have "bones showing plainly," it's hard not to think of death. OK. It's impossible not to think of death.
But this physical suffering was nothing compared to the moral torture I was about to endure. I would rate the day I went blind as the day my extreme suffering began. I could not tell you when exactly in the journey it happened. Time, as I said before, became irrelevant. It must have been sometime between the hundredth and the two-hundredth day. I was certain I would not last another one.
By the next morning I had lost all fear of death, and I resolved to die. (2.90.7-8)
Pi has not triumphed over his fear of death. He's simply lost all hope. Can you blame him? Not only are he and Richard Parker severely malnourished, both have also gone blind. We don't think it's a coincidence that after his admission of despair Pi begins to talk to Richard Parker in an episode of madness. Pi certainly battles it out with death, hunger, and thirst. He often conquers those pesky foes. Pi names fear and despair as his most formidable enemies –more dangerous than any other type of suffering.
Richard Parker has stayed with me. I've never forgotten him. Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love. Such is the strangeness of the human heart. (1.1.14)
Stockholm Syndrome anyone? While it's probably reductive to say Pi has fallen head over heels in love with his captor, Pi's admission does lay bare the "strangeness of the human heart." Is it some type of madness to love the creature who, at any point during your harrowing 227 days together on a lifeboat, might have mauled you to death? Pi could respond: and so it goes with God. We duly note here that Richard Parker did not maul Pi. Nonetheless, "nightmares tinged with love" border on madness.
We commonly say in the trade that the most dangerous animal in a zoo is Man. In a general way we mean how our species' excessive predatoriness has made the entire planet our prey. More specifically, we have in mind the people who feed fishhooks to the otters, razors to the bears, apples with small nails in them to the elephants [...]. And there are indecencies even more bizarre: onanists breaking a sweat on monkeys, ponies, birds; a religious freak who cut a snake's head off; a deranged man who took to urinating in an elk's mouth. (1.8.1-2)
Don't hate us, but we're going to use the literary term foreshadowing here. The zoo atrocities mentioned by Pi foreshadow the later atrocities committed by himself and others on the lifeboat. Of course, Pi and his lifeboat companions will have more of an excuse: they just survived a shipwreck and will most likely starve to death. But notice how Pi equates madness and predatory behavior. And isn't it beautiful – and sane – how Richard Parker and Pi suspend the laws of predator-prey relationship? Isn't that a great and beautiful thing?
But even wild animals that were bred in zoos and have never known the wild, that are perfectly adapted to their enclosures and feel no tension in the presence of humans, will have moments of excitement that push them to seek escape. All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive. (1.10.2)
Sometimes we read in the news about a husband or wife who leaves his or her family without warning to live somewhere else. Yann Martel himself dropped everything and traveled to India to write Life of Pi. This "measure of madness" inexplicably lights a fire underneath happy human beings and animals and sets them wandering (1.10.2). We can also read in these sentences Pi's attempt to explain Richard Parker's sudden departure at the end of the novel.
A foul and pungent smell, an earthy mix of rust and excrement, hung in the air. There was blood everywhere, coagulating to a deep red crust. A single fly buzzed about, sounding to me like an alarm bell of insanity. No ship, nothing at all, had appeared on the horizon that day, and now the day was ending. (2.46.10)
The hyena has ripped open the zebra's flesh. Orange Juice and the hyena have nearly come to blows. Sharks are swimming underneath the lifeboat. Blood is everywhere. Pi is completely alone. No wonder Pi hears an alarm bell in the fly's buzzing. Pi's surroundings have changed drastically within a short amount of time. He's gone from the comforts of his Pondicherry zoo to unchecked bloodletting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Considering all this, we're surprised only one alarm bell of insanity buzzes around the lifeboat.
I tried once to eat Richard Parker's feces. It happened early on, when my system hadn't learned yet to live with hunger and my imagination was still wildly searching for solutions. (2.77.7)
OK. That's gross. At this point, Pi loses his manners. Hunger and thirst often lead the characters of this novel to madness. Martel describes the deranged gleam in Richard Parker's eye when he's hungry. As if, for Martel, madness begins in hunger and thirst. But can we really call acts like this one madness? Isn't it sane to look for food everywhere when you're starving?
To be a castaway is to be a point perpetually at the center of a circle. [...]. When you look up, you sometimes wonder if [...] there isn't another one like you also looking up, also trapped by geometry, also struggling with fear, rage, madness, apathy. (2.78.5)
Pi describes the feeling, at sea, of being the absolute center. No matter where he is, the distance to the horizon remains the same. But the phrase "perpetually at the centre," for Pi, also suggests loneliness and spiritual abandonment. And such utter and extreme isolation, for Pi and anyone else, leads to madness.
I heard the words, "Is someone there?"
It's astonishing what you hear when you're alone in the blackness of your dying mind. A sound without shape or colour sounds strange. To be blind is to hear otherwise.
The words came again, "Is someone there?"
I concluded that I had gone mad. Sad but true. Misery loves company, and madness calls it forth. (2.90.11-14)
At this point, Pi begins talking to Richard Parker. It turns out Pi is really talking to another castaway on the Pacific Ocean who happens to be a blind Frenchman. It's one thing to mumble a few words to yourself, but it's another to imagine talking tigers who morph into French castaways. What do you think causes Pi's madness here? Hunger? Loneliness? Or even guilt?
I was getting used to the mental delusion. To make it last I refrained from putting a strain on it; when the lifeboat nudged the island, I did not move, only continued to dream. The fabric of the island seemed to be an intricate, tightly webbed mass of tube-shaped seaweed, in diameter a little thicker than two fingers. What a fanciful island, I thought. (2.92.9)
Yes, what a fanciful island, Pi. Martel really tests the limits of believability here with an island made entirely of seaweed. (Don't forget this island is also carnivorous and eats humans.) Do you believe this part of the story? Has Pi gone totally mad or is this development no stranger than a tiger and a boy trapped together on a lifeboat?
We laid him as comfortably as we could on a mattress of life jackets and kept him warm. I thought it was all for nothing. I couldn't believe a human being could survive so much pain, so much butchery. Throughout the evening and night he moaned, and his breathing was harsh and uneven. He had fits of agitated delirium. I expected him to die during the night. (3.99.248)
Like Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba, we at Shmoop think Pi's second story is horrific and gruesome. But it's worth noting that in both Pi's stories extreme pain and suffering lead to madness. In some books, madness sneaks up on a character, or the character was always mad and the reader doesn't realize it until the end. But in Life of Pi madness happens after traumatic events; it's brought on by hunger or thirst. Every animal may have a mischievous, healthy streak of madness (1.10.2), but the heavy-duty delusions show up during or after great suffering. Does Pi learn anything from his worst episodes? Do Pi's delusions still communicate a sort of truth?
[Mr. Okamoto:] "I'm sorry to say it so bluntly, we don't mean to hurt your feelings, but you don't really expect us to believe you, do you? Carnivorous trees? A fish-eating algae that produces fresh water? Tree-dwelling aquatic rodents? These things don't exist."
[Pi:] "Only because you've never seen them."
[Mr. Okamoto:] "That's right. We believe what we see." (3.99.47-9)
Some define madness as seeing things that don't exist. But Pi slyly questions this definition. Considering, especially, Pi's love for and obsession with God, it's a hop, skip and a jump to a defense of the Big Guy. It's possible Pi is asking Mr. Okamoto a super-secret hidden question: does the fact that most people don't see God mean God doesn't exist?
But I don't insist. I don't mean to defend zoos. Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world). I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both. (1.4.14)
Do zoos incarcerate animals in confined spaces and make them miserable? Pi doesn't think so: "Certain illusions about freedom" tempt us to this conclusion. In actuality, an animal's life in the wild is more circumscribed than "a knight on a chessboard" (1.4.8). Predator-prey relationships restrict the animal's movement. A zoo enclosure is actually more like a hearth for an animal: a place of comfort and rest. Likewise, most people think of religion as a restrictive cage. Actually, Pi says, it's home and hearth for the believer.
I'll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" then surely we are also permitted to doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. (1.7.21)
Pi's education includes both science and religion; he comes to love both these disciplines. But agnosticism – the suspension of belief (e.g., "I don't have enough evidence to believe in God so I won't commit one way or the other.") – drives the boy bonkers. For Pi, belief is one of the most beautiful actions of human life. To live otherwise is to live statically. One can either choose a rich, dynamic life or a static, uncommitted life.
[Pi:] "Religion will save us," I said. Since when I could remember, religions had always been close to my heart.
"Religion?" Mr. Kumar grinned broadly. "I don't believe in religion. Religion is darkness."
Darkness? I was puzzled. I thought, Darkness is the last thing that religion is. Religion is light. Was he testing me? Was he saying, "Religion is darkness," the way he sometimes said in class things like "Mammals lay eggs," to see if someone would correct him? ("Only platypuses, sir.") (1.7.9-11)
For the first time, Pi learns his biology teacher, Mr. Kumar, is an atheist. Certainly Mr. Kumar confuses Pi. Mr. Kumar extols the virtues of science (see Themes: Science 1.7.12 and 1.7.16) and, on some level, convinces Pi. For Pi, however, the light of science doesn't cancel out the light of religion. Both coexist and simply shed more light on his world.
Brahman saguna is Brahman made manifest to our limited senses, Brahman expressed not only in gods but in humans, animals, trees, in a handful of earth, for everything has a trace of the divine in it. The truth of life is that Brahman is no different from atman, the spiritual force within us, what you might call the soul. [...]. The finite within the infinite, the infinite within the finite. If you ask me how Brahman and atman relate precisely, I would say in the same way the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate: mysteriously. (1.16.3)
Said another way: The soul calls to God, and God calls to the soul. Although Pi relates here a tenet of his Hindu faith, his other two religious callings share this principle of divine intersection. In fact, much of the book builds toward these electric meetings between atman and Brahman (see Themes: Spirituality 2.85.6). We could also say much of the book – its degradations and tragedies – disrupt atman and Brahman. But isn't suffering, for Pi, a way to the divine?
I know a woman here in Toronto who is very dear to my heart. [...]. Though she has lived in Toronto for over thirty years, her French-speaking mind still slips on occasion on the understanding of English sounds. And so, when she first heard of Hare Krishnas, she didn't hear right. She heard "Hairless Christians", and that is what they were to her for many years. When I corrected her, I told her that in fact she was not so wrong; that Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims. (1.16.6)
Aw, isn't this cute? Pi charms the socks off everyone with this story. Pi uses his friend's mishearing to lay out one of his essential beliefs: Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are really all the same except for small differences in the practice of their faith. Hindus have a great capacity for love; Muslims see God in everything; and Christians are quite devout.
But we should not cling! A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists! I am reminded of a story of Lord Krishna when he was a cowherd. Every night he invites the milkmaids to dance with him in the forest. They come and they dance. The night is dark, the fire in their midst roars and crackles, the beat of the music gets ever faster – the girls dance and dance and dance with their sweet lord, who has made himself so abundant as to be in the arms of each and every girl. But the moment the girls become possessive, the moment each one imagines that Krishna is her partner alone, he vanishes. So it is that we should not be jealous with God. (1.16.5)
Pi remains unattached to any one interpretation of God. Sure, he believes each religion – but he doesn't guard their specific tenets jealously. Pi shares a rich parable: Each time the milkmaids try to possess Krishna he vanishes. Likewise, each time a religious faith tries to claim sole ownership of God, true religion vanishes. This story reveals a few of the workings of Pi's complex religious beliefs. You may have wondered how anyone could ever hold Hindu, Christian, and Muslim beliefs all at once. Pi's answer: without a trace of jealousy.
The pandit spoke first. "Mr. Patel, Piscine's piety is admirable. In these troubled times it's good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that." The imam and the priest nodded. "But he can't be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It's impossible. He must choose."
"I don't think it's a crime, but I suppose you're right," Father replied.
The three murmured in agreement and looked heavenward, as did Father, whence they felt the decision must come. Mother looked at me.
A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.
"Hmmm, Piscine?" Mother nudged me. "How do you feel about the question?"
"Bapu Gandhi said, 'All religions are true.' I just want to love God," I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face. (1.23.49-54)
In a hilarious scene, Pi's priest, imam and pandit accidentally meet on the street. Pi is a little embarrassed. But, in some ways, the three religious figures come out looking like the ridiculous ones. They all vie for Pi's loyalty and insist he must choose one religion. His response is a complex statement for such a young boy. Pi watches helplessly as the proprieties and customs of religion battle it out. Pi, of course, doesn't believe religion is about any of those things.
There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, "Business as usual." But they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.
These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. (1.25.1-2)
In this discussion of religion, Pi points out what he believes to be a major misstep by some believers. While God doesn't need their defense, those who do need their protection, the marginalized and poor, are ignored. Pi goes further: it's true God must be defended, but that place is in your heart. Think ahead to Pi's ordeal on the Pacific Ocean and his recovery in Mexico. How does Pi defend God in heart? Whom does he have to defend God against?
During those days of plenty, I laid hands on so many fish that my body began to glitter from all the fish scales that became stuck to it. I wore these spots of shine and silver like tilaks, the marks of colour that we Hindus wear on our foreheads as symbols of the divine. (2.66.6)
Remember earlier in the novel when Pi talks about atman and Brahman? How the divine in humans seeks the divine in the world? (See Themes: Religion 1.16.3). Here's an image of just such a connection: the fish scales, in a kind of silver-blue flame, draw out the divine in Pi.
I practised religious rituals that I adapted to the circumstances – solitary Masses without priests or consecrated Communion Hosts, darshans without murtis, and pujas with turtle meat for prasad, acts of devotion to Allah not knowing where Mecca was and getting my Arabic wrong. They brought me comfort, that is certain. But it was hard, oh, it was hard. Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love. Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up. (2.74.1)
Pi continues to practice his religious faiths at sea. (And isn't it perfect, given Pi's earlier assertions about religion, that he can't practice them according to the letter of the law? That he must adapt, trusting his intentions and good will?) It may seem like Pi's faith – at least in the first part of the novel – is blissful and untroubled. But don't forget the great test it undergoes on the ocean. During his suffering (see Themes: Suffering and Themes: Fear), Pi often comes close to losing hope. In this way, his faith is hard-won and hard-fought. It comes to have both an element of lightness and the weight of struggle.
Just beyond the ticket booth Father had painted on a wall in bright red letters the question: DO YOU KNOW WHICH IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL IN THE ZOO? An arrow pointed to a small curtain. There were so many eager, curious hands that pulled at the curtain that we had to replace it regularly. Behind it was a mirror. (1.8.4)
Obviously, the most dangerous animal in the zoo is the human being who's gawking at the animals. Very cute. Think ahead, though, to later events in the book, especially to the savage cannibalism recounted in the final chapter. Does danger have anything to do with unpredictable evil?
Getting animals used to the presence of humans is at the heart of the art and science of zookeeping. (1.9.1)
We're going to venture a guess here: Pi's insight about his father's zoo will be invaluable later when he tries to tame Richard Parker. It's also, on a deeper, more allegorical level, advice on how Pi can tame the savage parts of himself. Which is both art and science. And essential to completing his spiritual journey.
The animal in front of you must know where it stands, whether above you or below you. Social rank is central to how it leads its life. Rank determines whom it can associate with and how; where and when it can eat; where it can rest; where it can drink; and so on. Until it knows its rank for certain, the animal lives a life of unbearable anarchy. It remains nervous, jumpy, dangerous. Luckily for the circus trainer, decisions about social rank among higher animals are not always based on brute force. (1.13.3)
Here, Pi muses on the technique of circus trainers. The trainer must establish himself as the social superior of the lion. Think ahead to the training of Richard Parker. How does Pi accomplish this feat? Throughout his ordeal, Pi comes to value two traits human beings possess in abundance (more so than animals): cleverness and willpower. Do these traits also bring about evil in the book?
There are many examples of animals coming to surprising living arrangements. All are instances of that animal equivalent of anthropomorphism: zoomorphism, where an animal takes a human being, or another animal, to be one of its kind. (1.32.1)
In anthropomorphism, people project human traits onto animals. In zoomorphism (that is one sassy word), animals treat another species like their own. Examples include: a dog who sees its owner's leg as a sexual partner, wolves raising abandoned children, and dolphins swimming with a castaway in the ocean. Certainly Richard Parker living with Pi on the boat counts as a surprising zoomorphic arrangement. But there's also the oddity of Pi's spiritual life: Pi the Hindu, Pi the Muslim, and Pi the Christian all inhabit one spiritual being. These strange bedfellows don't just tolerate one another – they achieve harmony.
The poor dear looked so humanly sick! It is a particularly funny thing to read human traits in animals, especially in apes and monkeys, where it is so easy. (2.45.9)
Here, Pi is describing Orange Juice, the orang-utan who floats up to the lifeboat on a raft of bananas. Later, Pi will tell an alternate story of the shipwreck, one in which he more or less identifies Orange Juice as his mother. Therefore, Pi projects human traits onto an animal who is not really an animal but is actually his mother who has taken on, in Pi's imagination, the guise of an animal. There's enough interaction between man and the natural world to make a fellow dizzy.
It has been left behind. The pet does not understand. It is as unprepared for this jungle as its human siblings are. It waits around for their return, trying to quell the panic rising in it. They do not return. (2.47.8)
Really, this is a heartbreaking moment in the novel. Ostensibly, Pi discusses (as he is prone to do) the stupidity of returning pets to the wild. How can the poor creature survive? But Pi also comments – and this is the heartbreaking part – on his own abandonment and the loss of his brother Ravi.
I had to tame him. It was at that moment that I realized this necessity. It was not a question of him or me, but of him and me. [...]. Most likely the worst would happen: the simple passage of time, in which his animal toughness would easily outlast my human frailty. (2.57.8)
We think Pi's epiphany here counts as one of the major epiphanies of the book. Pi realizes he has to live with Richard Parker instead of either: a) in fear of him; or b) with no Richard Parker at all (i.e., he must kill Richard Parker). Pi throws out his plots to kill the tiger. Something like love begins to develop between Pi and Richard Parker. Perhaps, it's also worth noting that love happens only after a rigid social hierarchy has been established between Pi and Richard Parker (see 1.13.3).
Richard Parker was tougher than I was in the face of these fish, and far more efficient. He raised himself and went about blocking, swiping and biting all the fish he could. Many were eaten live and whole, struggling wings beating in his mouth. Actually, it was not so much the speed that was impressive as the pure animal confidence, the total absorption in the moment. Such a mix of ease and concentration, such a being-in-the-present, would be the envy of the highest yogis. (2.61.19)
A plague of flying fish descends on the lifeboat. Pi envies Richard Parkers absorption in the moment, his animal destruction of time and secondary concerns (See Themes: Spirituality). But notice how savage Richard Parker the Yogi seems. Should Pi imitate Richard Parker? Or are there parts of Richard Parker that Pi should – as a moral being – avoid?
Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind. (2.80.4)
Oh, man. Pi's Jedi mind tricks will work on Richard Parker. Pi comes to an invaluable realization: "Even though Richard Parker is a 450-pound Bengal tiger with teeth like those very sharp knives on QVC, I'm smarter than him. I can manipulate him..." Although Pi turns out to be right, you can imagine this going horribly wrong. Actually, don't imagine it. Spare yourself the details.
It came as an unmistakable indication to me of how low I had sunk the day I noticed, with a pinching of the heart, that I ate like an animal, that this noisy, frantic unchewing wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate. (2.82.5)
Pi becomes more beast-like. Much more like, say, Richard Parker. But – in the history of castaway and shipwreck novels – there are probably precious few passages where the slurping of turtle blood seems like spiritual enlightenment. You could translate "[...] this noisy, frantic unchewing wolfing-down of mine" to "I am in the moment and have no thoughts outside the thing I am doing."
This son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don't get it and opponents who don't respect Him – what kind of god is that? It's a god on too human a scale, that's what. (1.17.27)
Pi can't imagine a God who suffers. Isn't suffering something humans do? We're not sure if Pi comes to believe in the absolute dignity of suffering – his ordeal is fairly harrowing. He does, however, experience the simultaneous dignity and degradation of suffering.
[Pi:] "And what of my extended family – birds, beasts, and reptiles? They too have drowned. Every single thing I value in life has been destroyed. And I am allowed no explanation? I am to suffer hell without any account from heaven? In that case, what is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker?" (2.37.11)
Take it easy, Pi. Not only is Pi's brain moving as fast as a Japanese bullet train, he's also talking to Richard Parker who is a tiger. Maybe he has a point, though: is suffering bad because it's suffering or is it really, really bad because we have no explanation for it?
I began to wait. My thoughts swung wildly. I was either fixed on practical details of immediate survival or transfixed by pain, weeping silently, my mouth open and my hands at my head. (2.41.15)
Pi stops weeping only when he's working out the immediate details of survival. He has plenty of reason to cry. Most often, Pi worries about Richard Parker and Richard Parker's claws. Don't forget, though, he's just lost his entire family. Pi doesn't talk about the loss of his family as much as he talks about Richard Parker and the methods of his survival, but that loss is still there.
They were dead; I could no longer deny it. What a thing to acknowledge in your heart! To lose a brother is to lose someone with whom you can share the experience of growing old, who is supposed to bring you a sister-in-law and nieces and nephews, creatures to people the tree of your life and give it new branches. To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches. To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you. [...]. I lay down on the tarpaulin and spent the whole night weeping and grieving, my face buried in my arms. The hyena spent a good part of the night eating. (2.46.10)
Suffering – grief – becomes carnivorous. After enumerating his losses, Pi zooms out to picture the whole lifeboat. Now we know that the hyena, while Pi grieves, is tearing into the zebra. Pi's juxtaposition – grief next to a ravenous devouring – provides a metaphor for bereavement.
It is pointless to say that this or that night was the worst of my life. I have so many bad nights to choose from that I've made none the champion. Still, that second night at sea stands in my memory as one of exceptional suffering, different from the frozen anxiety of the first night in being a more conventional sort of suffering, the broken-down kind consisting of weeping and sadness and spiritual pain, and different from later ones in that I still had the strength to appreciate fully what I felt. (2.46.1)
Often we hear protagonists say, "It was the worst night of my life," in order to communicate his or her extreme suffering after a particular event. But Pi says, "I have had so many bad nights to choose from that I've made none the champion." Pi exposes the oddity of awarding one night or the other the prize of "Worst Night." We know he's a real expert on pain, because he describes different types of suffering: "frozen anxiety" versus a more conventional "broken-down kind consisting of weeping."
Orange Juice lay next to it, against the dead zebra. Her arms were spread wide open and her short legs were folded together and slightly turned to one side. She looked like a simian Christ on the Cross. Except for her head. She was beheaded. The neck wound was still bleeding. It was a horrible sight to the eyes and killing to the spirit. (2.47.16)
Pi returns to the mystery of Christ's suffering (see 1.17.27). Now Orange Juice figures into the Christ-as-sufferer equation. That means Pi compares Christ not only to human beings in his suffering but to animals. It's also possible Pi elevates Orange Juice's suffering to divine proportions. We don't have to choose one or the other.
For the first time I noticed – as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next – that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right. (2.60.1)
Pi realizes his suffering is taking place in the middle of an ocean. A vast, seemingly infinite setting. Instead of seeing himself as the absolute center of this setting, Pi believes the setting makes his suffering all the more insignificant. Perhaps as purposeless. Could Pi have believed the opposite? Could he have aggrandized his suffering?
Salt-water boils – red, angry, disfiguring – were a leprosy of the high seas, transmitted by the water that soaked me. Where they burst, my skin was especially sensitive; accidentally rubbing an open sore was so painful I would gasp and cry out. Naturally, these boils developed on the parts of my body that got the most wet and the most wear on the raft; that is, my backside. There were days when I could hardly find a position in which I could rest. Time and sunshine healed a sore, but the process was slow, and new boils appeared if I didn't stay dry. (2.64.2)
Ouch. Take a second to think about these boils. They're caused by the very element in which Pi now lives. It's like saying breathing air gives me leprosy. There's no escape for poor Pi. To add insult to injury, Pi gets these very painful boils on his butt. He can't even sit down to rest without aggravating his sores. What's a fellow to do? Suffer. And suffer some more.
I will further confess that, driven by the extremity of my need and the madness to which it pushed me, I ate some of his flesh. I mean small pieces, little strips that I meant for the gaff's hook that, when dried by the sun, looked like ordinary animal flesh. They slipped into my mouth nearly unnoticed. You must understand, my suffering was unremitting and he was already dead. (2.91.4)
This terrible deed occurs after Pi's encounter with the French castaway. The flesh in question is the Frenchman's. Don't forget that Pi more or less later identifies himself with Richard Parker later. The same Richard Parker who mauls the French castaway. If you're into the second scheme of the story, the French castaway is also the French cook. All said and done, Pi's suffering drives him to do things that would otherwise be inconceivable.
High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God. (2.93.2)
Pi turns to God at one of the lowest points of his Pacific crossing. Because Pi focuses on the low (or suffering) calling to the high (or God), it's easy to overlook the first sentence of this quote: "High calls to low [...]." In the code Pi's speaking that means God also calls to the sufferer.
I ran up the stairs. I got to the main deck. The weather wasn't entertaining any more. I was very afraid. Now it was plain and obvious: the ship was listing badly. And it wasn't level the other way either. There was a noticeable incline going from bow to stern. I looked overboard. The water didn't look to be eighty feet away. The ship was sinking. My mind could hardly conceive it. It was as unbelievable as the moon catching fire. (2.38.15)
Usually, when the moon catches fire, you're in trouble. Martel gives us a stunningly clear sense of Pi's fear: the inconceivable is happening. The more unbelievable chapters in this novel, of course, depend on the reader's faith in the story. But the events in those chapters also frighten the pants off Pi. Aren't we the most frightened when the usual rules of the world dissolve? Isn't that both beautiful and frightening – sort of like the moon catching fire?
I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging above me. [...]. After a while I made good use of the lifebuoy. I lifted it out of the water and put the oar through its hole. I worked it down until the ring was hugging me. Now it was only with my legs that I had to hold on. If Richard Parker appeared, it would be more awkward to drop from the oar, but one terror at a time, Pacific before tiger. (2.40.4-5)
It can't get any worse for Pi. He's alone in the middle of the Pacific hanging onto an oar extended from the bow of a lifeboat. A Bengal tiger is pacing in the lifeboat. Sharks are swimming below him. But Pi proves here that he's pretty tough. Even though there's a lot of talk in the novel about faith and spirituality, Pi is a remarkably pragmatic boy. If he is to survive, he has to deal with one problem at a time. "One day at a time" is probably the most cliché advice in the world, unless you're trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger.
Several times I had fits of fearful trembling. Precisely where I wanted to be most still – my legs – was where I trembled most. My legs drummed upon the tarpaulin. A more obvious rapping on Richard Parker's door couldn't be imagined. The trembling spread to my arms and it was all I could do to hold on. Each fit passed. (2.41.8)
It's easy to forget how extremely frightened Pi is – he's often humorous and playful during his 227 days at sea. But here an uncontrollable fear takes hold of Pi. He's unable to calm his body and his trembling is so bad he almost incites Richard Parker. Kudos to Pi, though. We at Shmoop would not only be trembling, we'd be dancing the ugly breakdance of terror.
I had a chance so long as he did not sense me. If he did, he would kill me right away. Could he burst through the tarpaulin, I wondered.
Fear and reason fought over the answer. Fear said Yes. He was a fierce, 450-pound carnivore. Each of his claws was as sharp as a knife. Reason said No. The tarpaulin was sturdy canvas, not a Japanese paper wall. I had landed upon it from a height. Richard Parker could shred it with his claws with a little time and effort, but he couldn't pop through like a jack-in-the-box. And he had not seen me. Since he had not seen me, he had no reason to claw his way through. (2.41.5-6)
Did you think Pi the Hindu-Christian-Muslim and eminent spiritualist would renounce the use of reason? Wrong. Pi uses reason to help him manage his fears. If Life of Pi, in addition to being a novel, is also a survival manual for our diverse, contemporary world, then Martel suggests you make use of every tool available. And yes, that means Yann Martel wants you to think.
As evening approached, my anxiety grew. Everything about the end of the day scared me. At night a ship would have difficulty seeing me. At night the hyena might become active again and maybe Orange Juice too.
Darkness came. There was no moon. Clouds hid the stars. The contour of things became hard to distinguish. Everything disappeared, the sea, the lifeboat, my own body. The sea was quiet and there was hardly any wind, so I couldn't even ground myself in sound. I seemed to be floating in pure, abstract blackness. I kept my eyes fixed on where I thought the horizon was, while my ears were on guard for any sign of the animals. I couldn't imagine lasting the night. (2.44.2-3)
Can things get any worse? Yes. Night obscures and hides everything from Pi. If you thought hanging out with a crazed hyena was bad, try hanging out with a crazed hyena at night. Of course Pi fears the night because he can't keep tabs on the hyena, but he also fears it because he can't see "the contour of things." Even the objects of the world, cloaked in darkness, have abandoned him.
Orange Juice hit the hyena on the head with her other arm, but the blow only made the beast snarl viciously. She made to bite, but the hyena moved faster. Alas, Orange Juice's defence lacked precision and coherence. Her fear was something useless that only hampered her. The hyena let go of her wrist and expertly got to her throat.
[...]. To the end she reminded me of us: her eyes expressed fear in such a humanlike way, as did her strained whimpers. (2.47.13-4)
Perhaps Pi learns a lesson from Orange Juice the orang-utan: fear is crippling. Even though he feels like taking the fetal position, crying, listing his troubles to a higher being, he needs to construct a defense of "precision and coherence." That means training Richard Parker, even though Richard Parker is scarier than the scariest thing you can think of.
I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. (2.56.1)
We don't know about you, but we always thought death was life's true opponent. Not so (see 1.1.11). Perhaps Pi sees fear as a more formidable adversary since "[i]t begins in your mind, always." To Pi, our minds and hearts are the true battlegrounds. Real life is kid's stuff.
The worst pair of opposites is boredom and terror. [...]. The sea is without a wrinkle. There is not a whisper in the wind. The hours last forever. You are so bored you sink into a state of apathy close to a coma. [...]. In your boredom there are elements of terror: you break down into tears; you are filled with dread; you scream; you deliberately hurt yourself. And in the grip of terror – the worst storm – you yet feel boredom, a deep weariness with it all. (2.78.7)
Pi ruminates on the life of the castaway. These psychological end points – boredom and terror – sound truly awful to hold in one mind. Even in his boredom Pi feels terror. In his terror, boredom. Perhaps Pi's boredom becomes terror: the way loneliness progresses to isolation and isolation to emptiness and emptiness to a sense of the world's nothingness. And that's pretty terrifying.
I have read that there are two fears that cannot be trained out of us: the startle reaction upon hearing a unexpected noise, and vertigo. I would like to add a third, to wit, the rapid and direct approach of a known killer. (2.92.37)
The "known killer" is Richard Parker. In a dark and irresponsible way, we think this is funny. How can the fear of a rapidly approaching tiger be an essential fear? Who else comes across tigers on a daily basis? Oh Pi, you're so funny.
[Pi to Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba:] "What you don't realize is that we are a strange and forbidding species to wild animals. We fill them with fear. They avoid as much as possible. It took centuries to still the fear in some pliable animals – domestication it's called – but most cannot get over their fear, and I doubt they ever will. When wild animals fight us, it is out of sheer desperation. They fight when they feel they have no other way out. It's a very last resort. (3.99.105)
Pi considers – not for the first time – the fear he must have inspired in Richard Parker. And the fear human beings must inspire in all animals. And why not? Human beings, in Life of Pi, certainly are "a strange and forbidding species" (3.99.105). Their derangement causes them to needlessly kill each other, kill animals in zoos, eat each other, and demand that Pi settle on a way of worshipping God. Literature itself might be one great attempt to understand our weirdness.