On the Life of Pi, story telling, and the truth

Unknown-3With one voice, philosophers and theologians throughout intellectual history have affirmed the fundamental religiosity of man. In Yann Martel’s book Life of Pie, the young boy, Piscine Molitor Patel, embraces this impulse in spades—becoming (unbeknownst to his parents) a follower of Christ, Krishna, and Allah. The first part of the book paints a portrait of “Pi” as a gentle, clean hearted, and wise worshipper of the divine as well as a contented zookeeper’s son.

This serene existence is upset one day when Pi is walking in the town square with his parents and runs into his Christian priest, Muslim imam, and Hindu pandit. A comical meeting ensues. To his parents surprise, each of the religious leaders claims Pi as a devoted follower of their chosen religion. To the religious leaders’ chagrin, they quickly ascertain that Pi has pulled a fast one: he is a follower of three religions! The discussion that follows is comical. The priest strikes first, “Piscine is a good Christian boy. I hope to see him join our choir soon.” Next the imam, “You must be mistaken. He’s a good Muslim boy. He comes without fail to Friday prayers, and his knowledge of the Qur’an is coming along nicely.” Now the pandit, “Your both wrong. He’s a good Hindu boy. I see him all the time at the temple coming for darshan and performing puja.” The conversation goes down hill from there. As the religious leaders argue, Pi wisely stands above them all. When challenged to pick one religion, Pi exclaims, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” And this honest and heart felt admission diffuses the tension and everyone goes their own way.

The second half of the book, at first blush, seems disconnected from the first. Pi and his family and their zoo animals were emigrating to Canada aboard a Japanese cargo ship. A few days into the voyage, the cargo ship sinks and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a 450-pound tiger name Richard Parker. For almost 7 months, Pi survives in the little lifeboat, along with Richard Parker, who is tamed by Pi. Eventually, they float hundreds of miles and end up in Mexico. The tiger runs for the jungle never to be seen again, Pi is found and rescued.

The story of his survival on the lifeboat is fascinating—Pi learns how to fish, collect water, build a life raft, tame a tiger, survive a storm, beat the heat, elude starvation, and handle boredom. The story of Pi’s relationship with a wild tiger is central to the narrative—at first, they are adversaries, then uneasy companions, finally, inseparable friends.

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the book, you might want to stop reading this now!!]

It is the last few pages of Martel’s tale that are the most shocking. Pi is being interviewed, interrogated even, by the owners of the Japanese ship that sank. They find his story of survival too much to believe. A boy and a 450-pound tiger surviving together for 7 months in a small lifeboat? Nonsense! They challenge Pi’s story until he finally blurts out an alternative story. The alternative story is far more horrific: instead of an hyena, orangutan, zebra, and tiger, the initial survivors in the lifeboat were humans: a cook (the hyena), Pi’s mom (the orangutan), a crew member (the zebra) and Pi (the tiger!!). Pi then tells a story of tragedy, murder, brutality, and evil: the cook cuts off the leg of the crewmember under the guise of saving him when in actuality he wants bait for fish. The crewmember (the wounded zebra) eventually dies. The cook (the hyena) eventually kills Pi’s mom, and Pi eventually kills the cook.

The story ends with a choice. To his interrogators, Pi states, “You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it….So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

The answer: ‘The story with animals. Yes. The story with animals is the better story.” 

Pi’s response: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

At last, in this response, we see the connection between the second part of the book and the first. Martel’s point is that religion, like Pi’s story of his misadventure on the boat, is malleable, capable of multiple interpretations, even contradictory stories, since there is no objective truth about God. Religious claims are not factual claims. But of course, if this is Martel’s point, it does not hold up under scrutiny. There is a truth about what happened with Pi on the boat. So too, there is a truth about God. The Christian, Muslim, and Hindu cannot all be correct for the simple reason that their claims about God are contradictory (see my post here for more). There is a true story of the world. I submit that this true story is described in the Bible. This story is historically grounded, hence testable, existentially satisfying, and hence livable. It is a story of God and man, sin and salvation, evil and hope, comedy and fairy tale.

In the Christian story, God invites us to enter His story. To find significance, meaning, hope, satisfaction, joy and truth as we follow Christ. Now that’s a story worth reading. Not only that, it is a story that is alive, and understands you, and invites you into a relationship with “the word”, that is, the person of Christ.

I’ve not seen the movie version of the Life of Pi and so I have no idea if it follows the book closely on the above points. But I very much look forward to seeing it soon! Here is the trailer if you haven’t seen it yourself:


















3 Responses to On the Life of Pi, story telling, and the truth

  1. Nick says:

    In reading this, I was reminded of Timothy Kellers quote on the same question of absolute truth. He says, “How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed none of the religions have? ~ Timothy Keller

  2. aysa says:

    I personally have no idea which story is true, I’ve been thinking and thinking but I just haven’t come to a conclusion just yet. Which story would you think is true?

  3. Hannah w says:

    I just belatedly read the book last week, and here’s a word to readers trying to decide “which of Pi’s stories is true”. The answer, folks, is disturbing:

    The entire story is made up, from beginning to end, including Pi. This despite the fact that the book itself tells you otherwise.

    I only found out the truth after finishing it… being captivated by the realistic details, I went online to find out more. No such person as Pi Patel, not based on any real sea-survival story, even the Pondicherry Zoo never had wild animals. The author got his inspiration from another novel (which was honest fiction).

    Yet the “author’s notes” tell us that the book is based on a true story, reinforced with ‘details’ about how he ‘discovered’ it and tracked Pi down, complete with interviews and self-reflection… This BTW means that none of the author’s own feelings were real either. Even the Japanese skeptics at the end weren’t real – they were there to manipulate us into a fake debate about what ‘really’ happened.

    I was persuaded to read this book by the teaser, “a story that will make you believe in God.” Now I’m offended.

    Its message is actually quite cynical: having faith in God is like having faith in Pi’s story – no factual confirmation is needed, and in fact none is possible. So just pick the God-story you think is best. Because God is just as “real” as Pi is.

    The author pretends he has given us an honest account of another man’s remarkable spiritual journey. The remarkable part is the deliberate confusion between documentary and fantasy – which to me is a betrayal of reader trust. (I say that as an investigative reporter.)

    I was going to call it a great example of how fake news can be presented as factual and believable. But now I see something worse.

    Life of Pi is a mockery of real people searching for the real God. While pretending to help you with a real-life story, it taunts you with a made-up faith that ‘sustains’ an imaginary character through a fictitious crisis.

    Not surprising that it was showered with acclaim.

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