There is so much commentary available on Yann Martel’s Life of Pi that it is difficult to find something to comment upon that is even remotely unique. It can seem to be a fanciful and mystical story drawing the reader to accept that theism is no greater a leap than the belief that science will explicate life; and indeed the former provides a greater sense of completeness as the “better story”.
The beginning is always a place to find an early sign of the theme or question the author is dealing with in the book. The name Pi might qualify as such; although a universal constant it is an irreducible, irrational number, perhaps implying that science will bring an incomplete answer to life at best. The story attempts to blend both science and religion at the outset as the semi autobiography joins his study of zoology, a science dangerously close to Darwinism, anathema to fundamentalist religious beliefs of all persuasions and Religious studies itself.
However, the principle theme of the book is the primacy of survival and its conflict with the constraint of human moralism to secure it. In a state of nature as a castaway floating on the ocean, with no authority, nor retribution, human behavior is debased. A Hobbesian, “War of all against all”; where the only thing that counts is self-preservation; not even familial ties as he watches his mother horribly murdered can impede this irresistible force. There is one chink in this interpretation when the cook appears to realize that he has lost his soul and welcomes death as an absolution or the dreamlike nightmare of the duplicity of the algae island. This appears to me more as a question mark than a statement but it does seem to touch on the idea of remorse. Embedded, is the parallel of the harshness of life through the maturing and loss of childlike wonderment and innocence of Pi. Upon reaching a safe haven the reality of the journey is reinvented to distance Pi from the horrors he endured; euphemistically described as sadness and gloom at the outset of the story.
It is important to point out the difference between religious practice and theism. Versus a state of nature, civil society provides a foundation for organized religion. Thus, alone on the ocean the practice of religion perhaps would become meaningless. Indeed, the story could be read that religious dogma is irrelevant, since Pi sees no problem in feasting on a smorgasbord of practices, which the clerics see as sacred and indivisible. It is possible that we are to interpret Pi beyond being an individual, reflecting humanity broadly. However, as the story turns to the sea so the overt religiosity diminishes and although a belief in God may be central to his determination to survive he alludes to Richard Parker as his practical savior, which in the final reckoning is a reflection of self.
There is childlike naivety through which Pi blends the religious practice of the principle religions of mankind. That naivety is sunk to the depths with the shipwreck. The highlight surrounding theism and religion does not have to be read as a revealed knowledge but can reflect what Tocqueville expressed sociologically as being simply another part of the psychology or form of hope. Certainly, cast adrift, isolated, despondent, at the very limits of endurance, would require a personal hope to sustain. This for me is the nub of the religious question of the book. If Pi were to look at his situation objectively, in either of the parallel narratives, the probability of survival, i.e. the case for science, he would doom himself. He survives because he has hope. It is not rational but like his name totally irrational, yet he makes it.
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