By Yann Martel
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS, BUT THIS POST CONTAINS SERIOUS SPOILERS
I think ‘Life of Pi’ might have the most wonderful ending of any novel I’ve ever read.
I first read ‘Life of Pi’ years ago, soon after it came out. I would have described it as a great read, if not a great book. I thought it was beautiful, but significant mostly for its for its breathtaking premise. I would have said it should be celebrated primarily for the novelty of its plot.
Which plot: Pi Patel is born and raised in Pondicherry, India, where his father is the local zookeeper. Pi grows up in the Pondicherry Zoo, among the animals, a serious and happy little boy with a religious bent: he becomes, entirely without his parents’ knowledge, a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim.
When Pi is twelve years old, his parents decide to leave India and emigrate to Canada. The family boards a cargo ship, the Tsimtsum, along with many of their animals which are destined for zoos all over the world. En route, however, the Tsimstum sinks, drowning Pi’s entire family and leaving him stranded on a life boat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
‘Life of Pi’ is the story of a sweet-hearted and devout little boy surviving an ordeal: 277 days at sea with a tiger for a shipmate. It is about his grief, his suffering, his survival and his relationship with Richard Parker. And it’s a gorgeous story – lovely and funny and vibrant and humane, totally totally original. The ending, though, is complicated.
When Pi finally makes landfall in Mexico, starved, malnourished, anguished, the Japanese company which owned the Tsimtsum sends two agents to speak to him, to learn what might have caused the ship to sink. These two man flatly refuse to believe Pi’s story that he survived at sea with a Bengal tiger. Faced with their disbelief, Pi presents them with another story: when the Tsimtsum sank, four people made it to the life boats: Pi, his mother, the ship’s cook, and a young, injured sailor. The cook killed and ate the sailor first, then Pi’s mother.
“He killed her. The cook killed my mother…They were fighting. I did nothing but watch. My mother was fighting an adult man. He was mean and muscular. He caught her by the wrist and twisted it. She shrieked and fell. He moved over her. The knife appeared. He raised it in the air. It came down. Next it was up – it was red. It went up and down repeatedly…He raised his head and looked at me. He hurled something my way. A line of blood struck me across the face. No whip could have inflicted a more painful lash. I held my mother’s head in my hands. I let it go. It sank in a cloud of blood, her tress trailing like a tail. Fish spiralled down towards it until a shark’s long grey shadow cut across its path and it vanished. I looked up. I couldn’t see him. He was hiding at the bottom of the boat. He appeared when he threw my mother’s body overboard. His mouth was red. The water boiled with fish…I stabbed him repeatedly. His blood soothed my chaps hands. His heart was a struggle – all those tubes that connected it. I managed to get it out. It tasted delicious, far better than turtle. I ate his liver. I cut off great pieces of his flesh…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 the animals or the story without animals?” (p.317)
Over the years though, my mind returned again and again to that ending. It took on greater scope as I got older, came to seem much more profound, less literal, than it had when I first encountered it. Now, upon rereading it, I think I have become convinced that the ending is best, the most beautiful, part of the novel.
This choice is, of course, actually being presented to the reader. You understand that the choice is fictional, that neither story is ‘true’ the way, say, Watergate is true. But you also understand that you are being asked how you, the reader, personally see the world. Are you inclined to believe that a boy lived on a boat with a tiger? That two such different animals were able to coexist, to form a relationship, however unlikely and frightening it may have been? That, in fact, the fear and the unlikeliness are part of what made it so beautiful? Do you believe that it is possible, if not probable, that these moments of unlikely beauty happen all the time? That the world is large and strange enough to accommodate many such miracles?
Or do you believe the horror? Do you believe that this little boy was forced to watch, helpless, while his mother was killed and eaten? That he is, himself, a cannibal and a murderer?
There’s a lot at stake in this decision. I think that, essentially, what you are trying to decide is what a story is. You are trying to decide whether or not there is ordinary magic in the world, whether wonderful and fantastic things happen, or whether we invent them to adorn the bleak and unsparing horror of the human condition.
For “Life of Pi’, this is a religious question as well as a factual one. Recall that Pi is a religious child: he refuses to choose between Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam because he loves them all equally. For Pi, religion itself is an expression of love and gratitude for the world he lives in, which he considers beautiful and miraculous.
But, if his own story, beautiful and miraculous, is a fiction designed to hide from horror, then perhaps religion is, too. Perhaps all beautiful stories are lies we tell in order to hide our suffering from ourselves. Perhaps they are a way to layer meaning onto suffering, to justify it, to disguise it with beauty. But, perhaps, suffering has no meaning at all.
Without his story, Pi is victim of terrible accident, witness to brutality he did nothing to invite. Some random dice-roll of the universe dealt him a terrible fate, and it meant nothing. A little boy watched his mother eaten, and it meant nothing. The little boy himself resorted to monstrosity in order to survive, and it meant nothing.
With his story, he is a boy who experienced a miracle.
I suspect that most people feel an immediate affinity for one version of the story or the other, an instinctive and instant sense of what is “right” – I certainly do. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this book over the years. Most prefer the animal story – it is, after all, the better story. More, it is the better world: more beautiful, kinder, and more magical.
But others feel unshakably that the second story, the human story, the awful story, must be the “true” one. I am of the latter camp. Over the years, I have come to suspect that this is due to a sort of moral pessimism on my part: I think I believe that the second story must be true because it is more horrible. I have become convinced that reality will always trend to the worst possible outcome, that, if there is doubt, the bleakest story will turn out to be the truest.
I wish I was the other kind of person. I wish I believed the magical story, I wish that it didn’t seem obvious to me that the sadder story is the truer story. I wish I had better faith; I wish I had more magic.