As I said in my post on Downton Abbey, I never mind spoilers. Knowing how a story ends doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. Rather the opposite. But I know not everyone shares that point of view and, whereas, I didn’t actually say how season 3 of Downton Abbey is going to end (115journals.com), I am going to tell how The Life of Pi ends. Here be spoilers!
I read Yann Martell’s novel, The Life of Pi, shortly after it was published, probably in 2002, the year it won the Man Booker prize. It wasn’t an easy book for me. I found the suspense hard to take: 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger! And the long sojourn on the island that turned carnivorous at night tired me out. But it was the ending that left me gobsmacked.
I was lured into seeing the movie by the main ad image – a young man in white at one end of a boat facing a huge tiger at the other (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0454876/) – and the fact that it was directed by Ang Lee who had made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And, I suppose, some chauvinism. Yann Martel is Canadian like me.
Pi of the title is Piscine Molitar Patel, a boy living in Pondicherry, a city in French India, who was named bizarrely after a swimming pool in France, and who was, naturally enough, known as Pissing by the other boys until he took matters into his own hands. He memorized pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, 3.14159 – , to many of its infinite digits and demonstrated his mastery while explaining to one class after another that henceforward, he was to be called Pi.
He spends his childhood, which apart from the teasing, seems idyllic, hanging around in his father’s small zoo and exploring the major religions, Hindu, Christian and Muslim. By the time political and economic changes uproot his family, he has practised all three. His family is en route to Canada on a Japanese ship, some of their animals in the hold, when the ship hits a vicious storm and sinks. Pi finds himself in a life boat with a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan and a hyena. The hyena soon dispatches the zebra and the orangutan and has set its sights on Pi, when suddenly, a Bengal tiger rushes out from under the tarp and kills it.
What made me think that I was up to watching that action in 3D?
Of course it was very beautiful, even the underwater scenes when the storm was in full fury were beautiful. The more peaceful zoo scenes at the beginning were exquisite. The flowers practically tickled my nose. The tiger was just amazing, huge and vivid, but very loud and scarey. I felt a little like I had when I saw my first movie, The Wizard of Oz, when I was 6. I had to be taken to the restroom and assured it was just pretend.
In fact, we know from the beginning that Pi survives because middle-aged Pi is telling his story to a writer. Pi assures him that his story will make him (the writer) believe in God. Now this in one of those devices that doesn’t work well with me. It reminds me of Marlowe in Heart of Darkness saying that he is going to tell a story that will change the listeners. Just hearing about Kurtz and the evil he did up the Congo River will do the job. What the heck? I was a little more convinced when I read the critics who talked about cannibalism (the king must die sort) and after I saw it visually in Apocalypse Now. Mostly, I just say, “Okay, I believe you or I’ll suspend my disbelief.”
So Pi recounts how he conditioned the tiger- Richard Parker is his name- using a whistle and seasickness. Eventually, Richard Parker puts up with having Pi on the lifeboat and is glad of what Pi catches and feeds him. Pi, himself, eats canned biscuits from the well-stocked larder. The stay on the flesh-eating island seemed mercifully shortened in the film and eventually after 227 days, Pi and Richard Parker wash up on a beach in Mexico. Richard Parker walks off into the jungle without a parting glance, to Pi’s dismay.
While he is recovering in hospital, two investigators from the Japanese shipping company come to interview him to try to find out why the ship sank. He tells them his story. When they seem disbelieving, he tells them another story.
In this story, the ship’s nasty cook is on the lifeboat with Pi as well as a Japanese sailor with a broken leg and eventually Pi’s mother, Gita. The cook kills the wounded sailor and uses his flesh as bait and food. Then he kills Gita. Clearly, Pi is next and so Pi attacks the cook while he is sleeping and finishes him off.
The Japanese interpret the animal story as follows: the zebra is the sailor, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the hyena is the cook, and the tiger? why of course, Pi himself or the savage part of him that made it possible to survive.
Pi asks which story they prefer and they reply the animal one.
My sister had asked me the same question a few weeks earlier, although she asked which one I believed. I made the same answer. But really, I meant only that I liked it better. In fact, it is much more likely that the other story was true.
Pi believed that in extremis, God answered his prayers and sent visions, schools of flying fish and edible islands, with nasty side-effects, to save him. It is a beautiful way to see things. And it may be true. It may be that an exterior divine force gets us through what the world throws at us. And/or it may be that we each have our inner Bengal tiger that roars fiercely to life when we are in dire straits.