God, Storytelling and Life of Pi

Spoiler alert: This review might contain spoilers. I don’t think it’s anything drastic, and besides, books are more about epiphany and revelation than surprise. If you read this review you’ll still love the book. And if you want to go in a virgin, get reading, I’ll wait for you…

Life of Pi is “a story that will make you believe in God”, so states a character at the onset. It’s a hefty pronouncement, quite a task for a small chunk of fiction to reveal the unknowable.

Life of Pi is a wonderful book by Yann Martell. He tells the story of a sixteen year old Indian boy, the son of a zookeeper, lost in the Pacific Ocean in a small lifeboat. His only companion – a 450 lb Bengal tiger.

It’s practically an outrageous premise, nearing the absurdity of something by Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach comes to mind) from the sound of it. But Martell tells his story with a graceful honesty, half Hemmingway (Old Man and the Sea), half Hesse (Siddhartha). And being a tale about the ocean, Yann pays homage to many of the classics, from Moby Dick with masterful description of ocean fauna to Robinson Caruso with harrowing details of survival and heroics.

The Siddhartha connection is particularly fitting, given that much of the novel deals with Pi and his curious spiritual composition.

Pi takes to religions “like fleas to a dog.” One scene in the book has a Catholic Priest, a Hindu teacher and a Muslim Iman converging upon poor Pi, each unknowing that he is a student of all three.

Unsurprisingly, the encounter results in Pi berated and scolded for his contradictory doctrine. He is urged to pick a single faith and stick with it.

But it is not the dogma of these religions that stirs Pi – to him they all lead to god. He is much more interested in the metaphor, the beautiful allegory and symbolism, all composing a miraculous story to reveal god.

So Pi is stranded on a small boat with a fierce tiger, surrounded by sharks, starving and dying of thirst.

Reason tells him that his situation is hopeless. He is facing certain death. What more to do then despair and perish? Certainly this is a circumstance that would warrant atheism – a meaningless universe without hope.

But Pi survives, developing a dubious and often humorous relationship with the tiger, fishing the deep, encountering miraculous wonders of the vast ocean. It’s all told with Martell’s skilled pen – gentle, a hint of childlike naivete, noble and honorable.

When Pi is finally rescued, he is asked to tell his tale. He talks of taming the tiger, 227 days at sea among the sharks and sea turtles, storms, flying fish, spiritual hallucinations and floating islands of carnivorous algae.

They don’t believe him. They ask him to tell what really happened.

He protests, yet finally concedes to recount a series of drab facts, suffering, cannibalism, murder and horror. A shorter, more “realistic” tale. The magic of the tiger is ignored, untold.

In the end, we are left with the question: what really happened during those 227 days? Due to Pi’s storytelling, either tale is equally valid – neither more provable.

But the tale of the tiger is filled with wonder, magic, metaphor, redemption and ultimately salvation. It is as real to Pi as the fish, the sun the wind and the waves.

Yann Martell, in a sort of meta-prelude, says that storytelling is about selectively distilling reality to an essence.

For Pi – and for us – the story of our lives and the world is what maters. We will never know everything, never be omniscient. The details of every cold fact and figure are unknowable.

At best we can distill the barragement on our senses into something recognizable, something fair, grand, pure, funny, clever, honorable, happy and wondrous.

In doing so, we validate our lives, and have the chance to glimpse god.

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