Isn’t it strange how the second reading of the same novel can realign your whole way of thinking about it?
I re-read Life of Pi by Yann Martel in anticipation of seeing the movie on Thursday night. I remember the book being gripping and intriguing, of getting to the final pages and feeling a need to flip back and begin reading all over again just to see if the story stood up to scrutiny.
Yet, this second reading – twelve years after the first – made me understand it in a completely different light.
I hadn’t quite remembered the first part of the novel, detailing Pi’s life in India and how he came about his name and his vigour for religion. I suppose it isn’t that surprising considering the whole appeal of the book is the image of being trapped in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger. Yet I have now come to realise how integral this aspect of the narrative is to the entire story; something that many people I have spoken to haven’t yet understood.
In the thread of the story there is a line, one that makes it even into the movie. Pi’s story, about spending 227 days at sea with Richard Parker the tiger, is described as a story to ‘make you believe in God’. And I think it does this. Not literally, but figuratively.
*Beware – spoilers do appear!
Pi’s background, his love of God and desire to believe in Him in whatever form is, for me, at the crux of the novel. Without this faith he would not keep hope during those long days at sea. He would not fight to live. He would not have the strength to train Richard Parker and endure the trials he has to face. Therefore, the setting up of this belief is essential. Pi’s ability to dedicate himself to three differing faiths is the very thing that makes him capable of this story.
Yet, it is not the strength of Pi’s faith that encourages you to believe in God throughout this story. At the very end of the story – when Pi finally arrives on the shores of Mexico and Richard Parker leaves him so unceremoniously – the reader is tempted into making a decision. The journalist and Japanese Insurance Men are also asked to make this decision. I think it is this that makes me really appreciate this novel for what it is; this decision that I took for granted the first time I read it, but now see it for so much more than what it is.
Pi tells two stories. The efforts of how he stayed alive in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger – but also for a short time a Zebra, Hyena and Orangutan – and, when pushed, a second story in which the French Chef – ‘a brute of a man’ – kills both a Japanese sailor (with a badly broken leg) and Pi’s mother, who is disgusted by the Chef’s behaviour. Pi then admits to killing the Chef rather than having to share the lifeboat with a murderer.
Martel, then, is very clever. He leaves the decision up to the reader as to which of these stories they would prefer to believe. But, not before identifying the suggestion that the stories are similar: as one of the Japanese Insurance men point’s out – Pi’s mother is the Orangutan, the sailor is the Zebra and the Chef is the Hyena, making Pi the Tiger. He provides just enough doubt to make you want to believe in the first story but to begrudgingly accept, like the Japanese Insurance men, that the second is more likely.
But this is the brilliance of the novel that I recognised the second time around.
In both the book and the film the adult Pi asks ‘which story do you prefer?’. He does not ask which story sounds more believable, he does not ask which one is most likely. He asks: Which story do you prefer?
If this is, indeed, a story to make you believe in God then you always prefer the first story – the one where Richard Parker and Pi become acceptable companions in a twenty-five feet confined space for 227 days. It demonstrates that you have faith. You have faith that miracles do happen, that such strange things might occur, that you want to believe in such possibilities.
If you prefer the second, blandly-told, summarised story where the animals are simply representations of real people who demonstrate the very worst of humanity – the French Chef being a despicable example of such that, as Pi admits, even ‘brought out the evil in him’ – then you may not have the richness of faith in your life. You see the world as it is, for the horrors that it brings and the sadness that persists within it. It is possibly no less valid than the previous story with the tiger, but you are more likely to believe this one because it marries best with the realism that you see in a world without faith.
I prefer the story with Richard Parker. I want to believe. As a reader then, the author Martel has shown to me that I am capable of faith. Like Pi, I do not have to believe in only one God, I can believe in as many things as I like so long as I have the faith that allows it to blossom.
[As an aside, I do not happen to have a belief in God, but perhaps this is why I admire this novel so much – because it has revealed to me that God does not have to be a part of faith]
The second time around then, this book has so much more depth and breadth than I ever really noticed the first time around. I remember preferring the Richard Parker story the first time around too, but not really understanding why. Now I realise it is because the novel brings to the fore some very philosophical musings whilst also being an unbelievably fantastic story.
As for the book versus the film’ I much prefer the book. The film was plain. It veered too much from the crux of the novel even though it attempted to tell the same story. Things happened in the film that didn’t occur in the book (the training of Richard Parker, the closeness between them, Pi holding Richard Parker’s head in his lap!?) and things happened in the book that weren’t even explored in the film (Pi going blind and meeting the French Chef in another lifeboat!).
Give me the book any day. If I can have two different experiences of reading the same words over again, giving me a different perspective each time, then I’d much prefer that that having to sit through a two hour movie that just doesn’t live up to the hype. The film was entertainment, the book is a revelation.