on April 14, 2013
Warning: This review may contain some spoilers
Why do we choose to tell the stories that we tell in the way that we tell them? Is it to portray unembellished reality or do we chose our narrative in service to a deeper purpose? In the novel Life of Pi, Yann Martel suggests that stories are how we find meaning in the universe; they are a path to God. Martel's characters tell stories that provide comfort, explain hardship, and provide inspiration without being literally factual. The author takes pains to remind the reader that the book itself is a work of fiction and that the literal representation of the truth is not his priority. In fact, Martel seems to say that sometimes we must abandon literal truth if we want to find meaning in the universe. If we fail to look beyond the literal truth in search of something deeper, we will "lack imagination and miss the better story"--we may fail to find God (Martel, 2007, p. 64).
Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi, is the titular character of the novel. The book's central conflict is Pi's struggle to survive while adrift at sea in a lifeboat after his ship sinks. He must endure against elemental forces, lack of food and fresh water, and stave off despair. However, on top of these very serious challenges, he must also deal with the fact that he is not alone in the life boat. For most of his ordeal, his only companion is a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker: a wild and untamed creature that could easily kill him at any time. However, this is not a simple survival story where the tension comes from wondering if the main character will manage to triumph over adversity. Even before we know a single detail of his ordeal, Martel assures us that Pi is alive and well, living an almost ordinary life. At the same time, he assures us that this is "a story to make you believe in God" (Martel, 2007, Author's Note). Much of the tension of the book comes in discovering what the author means by this.
On the surface, this is a survival story. However, this is not really a book about Pi's ordeal at sea; it is about the telling of the story of Pi's ordeal at sea. In the course of the narrative, there are at least five different times that one character tells the story to another. We are only privy to the details of two of these exchanges; the others occur "off stage." However, after each one, Martel shows us the impact hearing the tale has on the listeners. We get the sense that nobody is truly the same after hearing it. This is true even though the two versions of the story we see are mutually contradictory. By this, Martel demonstrates that it is not necessarily the literal truth of a tale that makes it meaningful. There is some other aspect of the story that makes it meaningful.
In the Author's Note, Martel calls fiction "the selective transforming of reality" and says that writers create it "for the sake of greater truth" (Martel, 2007, Author's Note). This note is where the narrative actually starts; it is part of the fiction Martel has created, not something that lives apart from the rest of the book. The character of the author appears throughout the book in a series of interludes within Pi's narrative. Martel uses these recollections to describe the man Pi has become and how the events of the story have changed him. The author also uses them to heighten the mystery about what exactly transpired in the lifeboat. He makes numerous references to events that have not yet been shared with the reader, foreshadowing the action to come.
Martel devotes most of the book to telling Pi's preferred account of his ordeal. This is a story that focuses on both the practical day-to-day details of his survival and his internal struggle to retain his faith in a higher power. The account is striking in both its realism and its utter implausibility. Even if we ignore the improbability of being able to survive on a lifeboat with an untamed Bengal tiger for 277 days, there are many other aspects of Pi's story that are hard to believe. We know this because Martel takes pains to have other characters, such as the shipping agents who hear the tale, point out the implausibility of these aspects. Details such as encountering another lifeboat at random in the Pacific midway through the journey, finding an almost magical floating island, and just the act of being able to survive in a lifeboat for 277 days are all highlighted as being hard to believe. However, this is not the only account of the events that Pi offers. He tells an alternative version of the events that is just as brutal and unforgiving as the other, but far more plausible. In this story, many more things make sense. Pi's actions are selfish, even if excusable. His thoughts are about survival, revenge, and satisfying his hunger, not his relationship with God. This version has only ugliness; it offers no meaning. Pi tells the shipping agents both of these stories and offers them a choice; the author does the same for the reader.
Pi seems to prefer the version of the story where he finds meaning because that is something he craves. Earlier in his narrative, he describes how his search for meaning caused him to become a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu, all at the same time. Each of these religions tells stories that explain the universe; they provide meaning and comfort. Pi embraces all of them. He feels no need or obligation to choose between these mutually exclusive stories. Why should he choose? The author told us in the Author's Note that stories are selective transformations of reality for the sake of greater truth. Pi craves this truth; he wants to know God and not restrict himself to "dry, yeastless factuality" (Martel, 2007, p. 64).
For the most part, both versions of Pi's narrative have the same elements; each of the fanciful aspects of the first narrative has a corresponding aspect in the second narrative that is tragically believable. However, there is a key part of the first narrative that does not appear in the second one: the floating island. This is the least plausible portion of Pi's first narrative. The island is an idyllic place (at least at first) with almost magical properties. It is wholly absent from the second narrative. This is a mystery within a mystery; the shipping company representatives he tells the story to give up trying to understand it. We are left to wonder if it points to a gap in Pi's second story, a piece that explains how a man could survive that long at sea. On the other hand, maybe it does not appear in the second story because it was literally true and needed no amendment. We are left to wonder.
Martel is careful to leave the door open for both interpretations of the story. For instance, one of the shipping representatives calls the island a botanical impossibility (Martel, 2007, p. 294). However, the representatives had also just assured Pi that the floating island of bananas that appeared earlier in the story was similarly impossible, an assertion that Martel shows proven wrong (Martel, 2007, p. 293). In this way, Martel hints that if the representatives were mistaken about one floating island, they might be mistaken about another. If one thing that is hard to believe is possible, perhaps another incredible thing also can be so. Even when we are convinced we know what happened, Martel reminds us that we should have doubt. The author tells us how he has read the diary that Pi kept during his ordeal. In it, we are shown Pi questioning his relationship with God. This is the Pi of the first story, not the survival obsessed pragmatist of the second one. There is always reason to doubt.
Why does Martel tell this story in the way that he does? Why is this not a simple linear narrative of a boy trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger? Martel tells the tale this way because he wants the reader to face the same choices that his characters face. He uses a complex structure of narratives within narratives in order to create ambiguity. The reader is left to decide what really happened. Do we choose the version of events with meaning, or the one with plausibility? Which one do we prefer? Is the "more plausible story" truly plausible? Martel refuses to give us definitive answers to these questions. Martel uses the plot and structure of the book to show that it does not matter if either is true. It does not matter if the author invented this story or if, as he says, it was told to him. What matters is the meaning we choose to give the story as readers.
Martel, Yann (2007). Life of Pi (Kindle Edition). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (Original work published 2001)