The Common Good
March-April 2003

Man Overboard

by Elizabeth Palmberg | March-April 2003

One of the many and fruitful exaggerations in Yann Martel's Life of Pi is the assertion, made by a minor character, that Pi's story will "make you believe in God."

One of the many and fruitful exaggerations in Yann Martel's Life of Pi is the assertion, made by a minor character, that Pi's story will "make you believe in God." With humor, incisiveness, excellent writing, and an uncompromising fidelity to the messy compulsions of the human heart, what the novel really compels is not belief in God but sympathy for those who seek God. For readers invested in the sacred, it is a well-finished novel about unfinished business.

Young Pi Patel, a zookeeper's son growing up in India in the '60s and '70s, has no trouble believing in God. By age 15, he is simultaneously an active Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, unbeknownst to his agnostic parents, and Pi compares the three religions' stories and practices in rich, quirkily reverent prose. Of Christianity, all Pi initially knows is that "it had a reputation for few gods and great violence. But good schools." Initially, Pi is bemused by Christianity's emphasis on conversion—"religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an ambulance"—and repelled by its "one Story" of crucifixion and atonement, which strike him as "downright weird."

After a few days of visiting a kindly priest, however, Pi is conquered by Christ's message of love. Not much later, a gentle Sufi mystic and baker leads Pi to experience Islam as a "beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion." The teenager also cheerfully agrees with Gandhi that "all religions are true."

What the book is mainly about, as the cover illustration suggests, is Pi's travails once he is trapped on a life raft with an adult Bengal tiger, the last survivor of his father's zoo. Here, Martel's sense of humor gives way to a sense of the absurd, references to God diminish, and Pi's struggle to survive, physically and emotionally, takes center stage.

ONE OF THE MANY virtues of Pi's odyssey is that it teaches the reader a good deal about animals. The foremost lesson, which preserves Pi's life on the raft, is that it is foolish and dangerous to think of animals in human terms: "Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are ‘happy' because they are ‘free,'" Pi muses. "These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of a gnu or of an aardvark is rarely exalted).... Animals in the wild live lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context?"

Pi concludes, "I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both."

The compulsions under which animals live—the drives for territory, rigid hierarchy, and food—are by no means the main ones that drive the gentle Pi as he searches for God's love, or even as he tries to survive at sea. But, paradoxically, it is precisely because animals are not like us that they can help unravel our illusions of freedom; the novel pursues this insight through layers of very human contradictions. One of those contradictions is that in order to survive physically, Pi must intimidate the tiger. But to survive emotionally, he must feel for it companionship and even love.

When Pi has exhausted every resource, when "the rest of this story is nothing but grief, ache, and endurance," he says, "it was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God." But this is the end of a chapter, rather than the beginning, and the next chapter describes not God but landfall.

As Life of Pi's early chapters make clear, Pi himself will go on to piety and comparative happiness in Canada. The novel, in contrast, comes to a climax immediately after Pi's rescue, when he struggles to describe how the sharp knife of suffering has cut away his family, his health, his vegetarianism, and arguably his grip on reality. Martel makes all of these losses, particularly the last, bear rich fruit.

By the end, Pi's belief in God and love has been honed down to a stark, unhopeful, desperate need for God and love—or for storytelling, which Martel seems to regard as the same thing. Even those of us who do not fully agree on that point will find in this beautifully crafted novel utter honesty, passion, and yearning for the sacred.

Elizabeth Palmberg is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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