Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Review by Laurie Chisholm
Media excitement first over the Man Booker prize-winning novel and then over the visually stunning movie, has long abated, but my fascination and engagement with it, in particular its take on religion, continues. The author himself sets the context as follows:
“If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.”
Pi is the nickname of a young Indian boy and the first part of the book is about how he, as a 16-year-old, sets out to love God, in contrast to his father (“‘rich, modern, and as secular as ice cream’), his mother (“bored and neutral on the subject. A Hindu upbringing and a Baptist education had precisely cancelled each other out’’), and his atheist, Communist biology teacher. First he discovers his Hindu heritage, then Catholic Christianity through a kind priest, and then Islam, through a poor baker, a Sufi who recites the 99 names of God. There are interesting sketches of these three religions and how they strike Pi (Christianity seems very odd, coming from a Hindu background). With lovely humour, the novel describes how three official representatives of these religions meet Pi and his family, each loudly arguing that their religion is the right and best one. Everyone assumes that Pi must decide on which religion to belong to, but Pi wants to belong to all three and responds unanswerably, “Ghandi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” Interestingly, Pi feels warmly towards atheists, including his biology teacher: “Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them — and then they leap.” Pi ends up being baptized (Catholicism) and receiving a prayer mat (Islam). In later life, his house is full of symbols of these three religions: Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, the Virgin Mary, Shiva Nataraja, the cosmic lord of the dance, Krishna playing the flute, the Kaaba, holiest sanctuary of Islam, and a cloth with Allah intricately woven in Arabic.
Pi’s exploration of three religious traditions is the theme of the first part, but this is embedded in a larger narrative that embodies a more fundamental reflection on the nature of religion. This is announced right at the beginning, when we are told that Pi’s story “will make you believe in God.” Pi also says: “If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe? ...
Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer.”
The second part of the book illustrates this. We are told a scarcely believable tale of shipwreck and survival at sea in a life-raft together with a Bengal tiger. At the end of the book [plot spoiler follows], Japanese marine officials interview Pi about his experiences. They express skepticism but he stoutly defends his story. After having responded to all their objections, he volunteers an alternate story, a horrible tale of murder and cannibalism, with humans replacing the animals of the first story. Ultimately, the officials cannot prove which story is true, and so the question is, which story do they prefer. They acknowledge that the story with animals is the better story, and Pi responds, “And so it goes with God.”
It is intriguing that in this so-called secular age, a novel is so centrally concerned with religious themes.
All through, there are interesting and thought-provoking observations (and not just about religion). A favourite of mine is:
“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.”
At the risk of over-interpreting the novel, its basic message seems to be that we have an alternative between “dry, yeastless factuality” and the beautiful stories of our religious traditions. Neither can be proven to be true, but we can choose which story we prefer.