I remember watching Life of Pi on DVD and feeling confused, indifferent to the characters, and outraged by the plot. An arrogant Indian boy named “pissing” almost drowns in a ridiculously brutal ocean storm, but ends up surviving for many uneventful days on a lifeboat with zoo animals? Come on! Then the movie’s conclusion changed my mind; the whole mess was really just an intricate allegory. I am gaga for allegories and, because the movie’s details escape me, I decided to dive into Yann Martel’s novel for a closer look.
I’m glad I did. Surprisingly, the arrogant Indian boy is my favorite part of the book. Piscine Molitor Patel (who goes by Pi) narrates the main story with youthful sincerity and transparency, and wisdom beyond his years. He introduces me to the complexities of his curious mind with dedicated, simple observations of the world around him.
Pi’s favorite analogies involve animals, as he grew up in his father’s Pondicherry Zoo. On page 16, Pi asks the lofty question, “What is the meaning of freedom?” Are animals unhappy in their limited zoo cages? Pi argues that “if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo,” since a zoo has an abundance of food, while nature is unforgivingly scarce (p. 18). Plus, all animals are compulsive and territorial. “There is no more happenstance, no more ‘freedom’, involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a knight on a chessboard” (p. 16). They like caged predictability. He extends this to humans. We wouldn’t kick down the door of our neighbor’s home, announce, you’re free, and expect them to “shout and dance for joy” (p. 17). Pi argues that, like animals, we are most ‘ourselves,’ most ‘free’ within structured limits.
His indisputably straightforward reasoning compels me to consider his words beyond the scope of the novel. Sociologically, what makes anarchy impossible? Psychologically and physiologically, what is the importance of strong parenting? Theologically, how does the Law give me freedom? All these elusive questions can be tethered and grounded to Pi’s animal analogy, and because he is so refreshingly honest, I feel comfortable exploring these answers on my own. Pi doesn’t really need to waste space with an exhaustive list.
Even when Pi comes to disagreeable conclusions, he explains himself so honestly that I can’t help but admire him in his small truths. For example, a major theme in the first part of the book is his conviction that “all religions are true” (p. 69). He is a “practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim,” all at the same time (p. 64). First a Hindu, Pi wanders into a church and hears a Story. He is upset by the simplicity and wants more, asking, “Why would God wish [death] upon Himself?” (p. 54). The one word answer he receives is “Love.” Jesus Christ bothered Pi, and the more He bothered him, the less he could forget Him; the more he learned about Him, the less he wanted to leave Him (p. 57). Soon, Pi is baptized and thinks he is going to explode with joy. I can’t help but smile at this honest story of overwhelming grace.