Ugh. I’ve tried to write this blog five times. It just isn’t happening. A friend of mine recommended I write about Life of Pi. It is one of my favorite books, and now after seeing the movie yesterday, on my top movies list as well. I am now simply lost in trying to review something so meaningful to me at a personal level.
Christmas time, five years ago, my brother introduced me to a book he had just read called Life of Pi. He has impeccable taste in literature (I mean, he’s read virtually everything, so he ought to have an idea of what does and does not suck). I bought the book and read it over the course of about four days. The story spoke to me in a way I’d been searching for. You can imagine my excitement/trepidation when I learned the book was being made into a movie.
Excited to see the story in film, nervous that like so often is the case, the translation to the big screen would lose the most important essence of the book.
The book touts itself as a “story that will make you believe in God.”
The story is basically a two hundred plus page build up to a single point. A quick Google search will show no shortage of interpretations of that one point. I once heard Rob Thomas (lead singer of Matchbox 20) explain that the power of a great song is often that it means different things to different people, and I think that explanation might hold up with Life of Pi.
But I’ll try to give you the real interpretation…
I should say here that I will do my best to avoid spoilers, but it will be difficult to not give some things away while discussing the book/movie. If you have not read the book or seen the film, maybe you ought to before reading this post.
Piscine’s name is important to the book. His nickname, Pi, is critical to the representation of life the main character plays. He plays all of humanity. He plays the numberless, infinite, irrational, imperfect and indescribable role of existence that we all face, just like his mathematical counterpart, p.
Pi introduces us to his life in Pondicherry, his experience growing up in a zoo, and his fascination with religion. Then, his family closes the zoo, sells the animals, and sails to Canada on a Japanese cargo ship. The ship sinks, and from there we are told two wildly different but eerily similar stories.
The first story is one of adventure and magic. It is an inspiring story of optimism and survival, of the promise of something better, and the assistance of heaven through mysticism and the supernatural.
The second story is much bleaker. It tells of the depths one must go to in order to survive. It speaks of shame and loneliness and the brutality of existence. There was no assistance from on high, just random luck, a fierceness to survive and a tiger like ferociousness necessary to overcome the hopelessness of existence.
At the center of it all is Richard Parker. In one story, he exists as a real life tiger to aide Pi in his survival, keep him company, ensure he is on constant alert, and provide him with a purpose. In the other story, Richard Parker exists only as a deep and primal part of Pi, an imagined embodiment of Pi’s strong instincts for survival. Whether in the boat or in Pi’s mind, Richard Parker is real enough to keep Pi alive.
The men interviewing Pi are asked the question, “Which story did you like better?” To which they reply, “The one with the Tiger.”
And so it goes with God. Even my Calvinist and Determinist friends will agree, we each get to choose the story we like best.
There is a great quote early on in the book that was absent from the movie. In fact, the movie completely dropped the first Mr. Kumar, the teacher who professes to Pi his atheism. For me, Mr. Kumar’s role is crucial to the plot.
As Pi is adopting more and more practices from each of his religions, he discusses also the closeness he feels toward his atheist brothers and sisters. He then addresses agnosticism and doubt. For those of us who wrestle with doubt, he claims doubt is useful and we must all face it at some point. But then he says something that has stayed with me, to the point I don’t even need to look it up:
“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
Regardless of which story we choose to believe, we must keep moving. That’s why I choose the story with the tiger.