Life of Pi promised a lot: the possibility of finding true God, a look at human and animal relationships, finding a purpose in life. But the book failed to deliver.
Piscine Molitaire Patel lives in India with his parents and brother Ravi. They operate the Pondicherry Zoo. Due to the unrest in India in the 1970s, Pi’s father makes the decision to move the family to Canada. They sell the zoo and the animals are packed on the freighter with them, to be sold in North America.
Pi (Piscine’s self-given nickname so the kids will stop calling him ‘Pissing’) is a Hindu/Christian/Muslim teen. Let’s get one thing straight- those three religions do not compute. You cannot believe all of them unless you too stupid to know the difference or if you don’t believe the foundations of all of them. Hinduism has 33 million gods. So throwing a few more in there isn’t a big deal, which is why Pi can justify believing in multiple religions. I don’t know much about Islam, but its pretty hard core about its practices and beliefs. And true Christianity denies all other religions as a pathway to God. These religions are so diametrically opposed. But does Yann Martel illustrate that? Of course not. He sets up an imaginary meeting between three leaders of the religions. And their arguments are unrealistic, faulty and plain stupid. Any priest or imam that can’t articulate the fundamentals of his religion isn’t really a priest or imam.
The first half of the book is riddled with questions (and wrong answers) about God, and the second half largely leaves God out. Was this intentional? I’m sure it was, but the two sections seem divorced from each other. And that to me is bad writing, not bad reading on my part.
Through a series of unfortunate events, Pi is shipwrecked, and he the only survivor. Well, he, a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan named Orange Juice, and a tiger named Richard Parker. Soon, only Pi and the tiger remain. What ensues is an epic (although impossible) story of survival for 227 days in the lifeboat. In the end, they wash up on the shore in Mexico. And Richard Parker walks into the jungle, without ever turning back. Pi is upset that he never got the chance to say goodbye to his greatest enemy, friend and saviour.
In the end, Pi forces us to question the entirety of his story. Two men from the insurance agency looking into the sinking of the ship. Pi tells them his story. The two men don’t believe him. So Pi asks if they want another story. One that is more believable. One that doesn’t have animals or a carnivorous island. They say yes. So Pi tells another story, this one with humans surviving the shipwreck. A cook, he (Pi), his mother and a sailor. He tells a story of the cook being a savage man, one who killed and ate the sailor, and eventually Pi’s mother. Pi says he killed the cook himself. And this leaves us asking: which story is true? Is the first just a metaphor for the second? One that shows the animal-like savagery in our nature? One that sets up and understanding for the second? Did he just make the second story up to satisfy the insurance men? We don’t know.
This is a clever twist. One that makes you think. I appreciate what Martel was trying to do. He was trying to add more depth to his story. He was trying to make his book greater literature, literature that perhaps does more than entertains, but one that asks questions. To be honest, I thought it was lazy. Interesting, but lazy. Instead of incorporating the deep questions into the body of the story, instead of showing human nature, instead of asking who God is, instead of illustrating his point, he discredits it and expects us to do the rest. It’s a very post-modern story in the end. Who can say what Truth is? Who can say which story is true and which isn’t? Who says that an answer exists?
Now, after I read the book, I watched the movie. And while the storyline is similar, and in some ways identical, I got a very different feel from the movie. The visuals in the movie are stunning and the acting is great. That aside, God is woven throughout the story. At one point there is a huge storm. Pi yells at the storm, “What more do you want from me, God? What more can you take?” It’s a powerful scene. Pi believes he sees God in the storm. He rips the tarpaulin off the boat, he exposes Richard Parker to the fury of the waves and the wind. He almost kills him. The cat is thrown about, realistically resulting in broken bones, but that isn’t explicitly revealed in the movie.
The movie also omits some of the incoherent, random and plain non-sensical parts of the book. In the book, Pi talks to Richard Parker and he talks back. This is seen as the madness of a boy dying of thirst. Okay, I can buy that. They are both blind with malnutrition. (Possible? Not sure.) Another life boat floats up. Somebody is in that boat. He too is out of supplies. He and Pi talk and then he climbs into Pi’s boat. Pi tries to warn him about the tiger. He’s too late. Richard Parker attacks and kills the man. Pi crawls into the other life boat and finds that the man lied. He had some supplies, which helps Pi survive until he comes upon a strange floating island covered in algae and inhabited solely by Meer cats. The island supplies Pi and Richard Parker with food. But the island turns carnivorous at night to all who are on the ground or in the water. Pi and the Meer cats sleep in trees. Richard Parker sleeps in the boat. Pi realizes the island is a lonely place where he will eventually die, so he gathers as much provisions as he can and then sets sail again. The movie includes the floating island, but not the strange, possible imaginary conversations between the boy and tiger and unnamed man.
This was a weird section of the book, one that isn’t really talked about much afterwards. I’m glad the movie omitted it. I’m not sure what Martel’s point was in telling us this. Apparently movie makers thought it was weird and unimportant as well. When Pi tells his second story to the insurance agents in the movie, he tells it much more convincingly than in the book. The book left me thinking that Pi just wanted to confuse and satisfy the agents. The movie made it a much more plausible possibility. He cries while telling it. He says he’ll never forget the cries of his mother.
Aside from that discrepancy, I liked the movie better than the book. The book was drawn out, focused on religion entirely too much without giving answers, and was too post-modern for my liking. The movie has its problems as well, and I almost wish they left the alternate story out of the movie. It would be very different from the book, but it would be superficial enough to make me happy. The relationship between Richard Parker and Pi is much deeper in the movie. At one point, Pi takes the tiger’s head in his lap and strokes his head. This made me cry. I have deep relationships with animals and that scene really hit home with me. Ultimately, the movie showed that savage beasts can put aside their savagery. They’re human, in a way. The book never alleged this. I listened to a podcast on Plugged in Online about the movie. (Podcast 177, available here: http://www.pluggedin.ca/familyroom/podcast.aspx) What Bob Smithouser said was exactly what I felt after the movie. “It was like looking into the eyes of a beautiful animal with no soul.”