Life of Pi

Yann Martel

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 

I put a message in the bottle: “Japanese-owned cargo ship Tsimtsum, flying Panamanian flag, sank July 2nd, 1977, in Pacific, four days out of Manila. Am in lifeboat. Pi Patel my name. Have some food, some water, but Bengal tiger a serious problem. Please advise family in Winnipeg, Canada. Any help very much appreciated. Thank you.”

                                              from  Life of Pi


A story to make you believe in the truth of fiction

I have a story that will make you believe in God.

Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, Life of Pi, opens with a challenge. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award, it tells the strange and fantastical story of a 16-year old Indian boy on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Although raised by secular parents who dismissed religion as so much superstition, Pi is one of those souls who feel the urge toward the divine. Born a Hindu, he also explores Christianity (“I knew very little about the religion. It had a reputation for few gods and great violence. But good schools.”) and then later, Islam, which “had a reputation worse than Christianity’s—fewer gods, greater violence, and I had never heard anyone say good things about Muslim schools.” Sensing the spiritual reality lying behind each religion, Pi becomes a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim, seeing them as different paths toward the same destination.

With growing political unrest in India, his father decides to sell their zoo in Pondicherry and move the family and some of the animals to Canada. Caught in a Pacific storm, their ship sinks and Pi is the sole human survivor on a lifeboat he shares with a zebra, hyena, orang-utan, and Richard Parker (“Welcome to Pi’s ark.”) For reasons understandable, the survivors soon become reduced to the tiger and the boy.

The recently released film by director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is a wondrous visual spectacle, and remarkably faithful to the book. Martel’s novel is a fable wrapped within a true-to-life survival epic, and both book and film have a fantastical quality, mixing real and surreal.  Suraj Sharma, in his first acting role, endows Pi with the ingenious and ingenuous temperament of a teenage boy drawn to the spiritual while faced with the more practical concern of not being eaten today.

Elie Wiesel once said that God invented man because He loves stories. In perhaps much the same vein, the novelist in the opening narrative, muses, “That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?” Which is perhaps also what religion is truly about: finding the essence of reality.

At the end of the book and film, faced with the insurance investigator’s disbelief in his story, Pi gives them—and the reader—a second account of what happened, and we are left to choose between the fantastic and the horrific.

If the book doesn’t fully live up to its promise to make the reader believe in God, it will certainly make us believe in the power of fiction to transform our reality, and occasionally to reveal its essence.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (December 15, 2012-January 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.