“I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”
“Neither makes a factual difference to you.”
“You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it.”
“I guess so.”
“In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“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?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question …”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: “Yes. The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
- conversation between Pi and Japanese officials, in chapter 99 of ‘Life of Pi’
The story of Pi Patel, a shipwreck survivor who crosses the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for company, is introduced as a story that will “make you believe in God”. Quite a claim!
When I watched the film in the cinema, I misunderstood it. I thought it was the character’s survival through such an unlikely voyage, with such a dangerous animal, that was meant to be the proof of God; a miraculous rescue from death. I more or less ignored this aspect; it seemed disappointingly childish compared to the rest of the film.
Having now read the beautiful book on which the film is based, I was astonished to find this was not the point at all. It is much cleverer and more interesting than that. And it really isn’t until the end of the book that the whole point of the story becomes clear.
Pi is a young lad smitten with religion, becoming a practising Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, all at the same time. This story in itself is wonderful, as is the horror in each of his religious leaders when they discover it! Such an eclectic mix of beliefs, like a whole Unitarian church in one boy, was bound to give rise to something deep.
“When Mr. Kumar visited the zoo, it was to take the pulse of the universe, and his stethoscopic mind always confirmed to him that everything was in order, that everything was order. He left the zoo feeling scientifically refreshed.”
“… atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap.
I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. … But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
These views of Pi surprised me; it seems that he regards the ability to have faith in something as more important than the object of faith. In alater chapter, he goes further and imagines an atheist’s “deathbed leap of faith” in God while the agnostic cannot make such a leap and, right to the end, sticks to “dry, yeastless factuality”. Why is it better to be able to have faith? In Pi’s words, it is so that we don’t “miss the better story”. The atheist has this ability; he or she just chooses the inferior story, and may switch over at the last second. The agnostic, however, doesn’t really want a story; just the “facts”. (I don’t actually think ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ are the right labels for it, but I have some sense of this difference – I tend to think of people having a ‘religious personality’ or not.)
Those words – “dry, yeastless factuality” – occur again in the 99th chapter, in the context of the conversation between Pi and the Japanese officers. They are trying to find out what happened to the ship, and are finding his story too incredible. He offers an alternative, more ‘reasonable’ story involving human fellow passengers that gradually die off in gruesome ways and leave him the sole survivor. We are thrown into doubt as to which one was actually true. And slowly, it starts to dawn on me. The whole story of his journey on the lifeboat is a parable. And I have unwittingly found myself wanting the story with the tiger to be true, preferring to believe that version. Despite my mild offense at his views on atheists and agnostics, I have eventually found myself indignant at the ‘agnostic’ Japanese officials, and clinging to the better story – without even realising the significance of it.
This, I think, is how his story makes one believe in God, if it does that. It is in the recognition of that human need for the best story. Pi’s religion won’t explain how we came to exist as we are (or in the parable – the reason for the sinking of the Tsimtsum), and won’t make any factual difference in our understanding of life and the universe - it certainly isn’t any conventional religion, but I like it.
It’s a truly brilliant book.