I’m conducting an experiment: Life of Pi concerns a basic metaphor about faith, how is that metaphor rendered in print and on screen? I’ve re-read the book. I’ve deliberately (at this stage) not watched Ang Lee’s film; rather, I’ve found a reviewer of the film (Jonathan Kim of the Huffington Post) who has not read the book, and then I’ve compared notes.
Jonathan Kim has derided what he saw, at least from the perspective of the metaphor:
‘Life of Pi is more about the nuts and bolts of a teenager surviving at sea and bonding with a tiger than a spiritual quest that asks hard questions about the wisdom, will, and existence of God and why he seems to enjoy inflicting so much suffering and death on unoffending humans. In the end, Life of Pi not only doesn’t answer any of religion’s big questions, it doesn’t even ask them.’
A damning opinion; but I reckon that Kim (and therefore, perhaps, Lee) has missed the point. The story doesn’t ask questions of God; it asks questions of man. It is not a proof of God’s existence, rather an exploration of why people believe in something greater than themselves (and, of course, that needn’t be God).
Pi is a zoologist. His true love is encountering beauty in the world; his all consuming problem is how to describe it. He says, very early on in the book:
‘I wish I could convey the perfection of a seal slipping into water or a spider monkey swinging from post to post or a lion merely turning its head. But language flounders in such seas. Better to picture it in your head if you want to feel it.’
This is the first call, repeated throughout the book, that one must dream if one is to sense the intangible, because such experience cannot be exactly described (and, therefore, neither can it be understood) by memories and tongues that are inherently flawed.
The imperfection of memory is a constant theme as Pi recalls how he survived for 227 days in a lifeboat with a 450 pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. He is honest about his memory’s shortcomings, saying: ‘My memories come in a jumble’ and: ‘It tasted warm and animal, if my memory is right. It’s hard to remember first impressions.’
He insists that you work with him: ‘My feelings can be imagined,’ he says. The natural response to Pi’s demands is to say that one cannot see the unseen because to imagine accurately requires context inspired by some experience; but he demands that you go further, not by suspending your disbelief but by using it to grapple with the seemingly unbelievable, to be beguiled by the irrational as, for instance, he was on first hearing the Gospel: ‘And what a story. The fact that drew me in was disbelief.’ This paradox, of being drawn into belief by disbelief, is at the heart the book’s account of faith. All that is needed, Pi says, is to keep imagining that something beyond ‘dry, yeastless factuality’ can happen, and then belief will follow.
This prompts the question, which faith to believe? Pi is clear in his ecumenicism: ‘A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists… we should not be jealous of God.’ Pi is a practising Hindu, Muslim and Christian whose first ambition is to ‘love God’. Why? Pi’s primary answer is that faith, the hope and consolation that it brings, is the best insurance against the outrageous and even the common imperfections of life. You wouldn’t chose to be shipwrecked with a tiger any more than you would chose to have a malfunctioning memory that suppresses or enhances dishonesty; and yet Pi is stuck with both. He needs help as a baby needs milk. It is natural, therefore, Pi thinks, for him to turn his eyes to God.
Pi asks sceptics at the end of the book: ‘Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals [a tale of humans, murder and cannibalism]?’ The sceptics say that the story with animals is better, to which Pi replies: ‘And so it goes with God.’ Faith isn’t, however, merely a matter of shrouding one’s baseness by pursuing solace in higher things. Pi believes that it is intuitive to reach for God because he sees God everywhere in nature. He sees the divine in the fragile bird and the fearful tiger. And, being of nature himself, he recognises that he must act responsibly within it. There are dividends for doing so; and his determination to keep the tiger, Richard Parker, alive is not selfless:
‘It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start with was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness.’
Richard Parker is given divine attributes, as a figure of immense power and peace. God seems to complete creation in Pi’s mind.
Life of Pi, in book form at least, does not seek to prove that God exists; but it explains why so many believe and will go on doing so.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.