Piscine Molitor Patel, known as “Pi” tells his life story and epic adventure as an adult looking back at both his childhood in Pondicherry, India, and his survival on a life boat in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days with a Bengal tiger. As the son of a zookeeper and owner, Pi is forced to use all of his knowledge about animals (which is quite extensive) in order for him and his tiger to survive.
As a story of survival, Yann Martel, does a great job of writing and engaging the reader. From this perspective, the story was thoroughly enjoyable. However, toward the end, an already bizarre adventure took some even more bizarre and unbelievable twists… such as encountering yet another (at this time blind) castaway (a Frenchman) on the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Hours before what seemed the inevitable death for Pi, the Frenchman, and the tiger, both castaways decide to join in one lifeboat as ‘brothers’ in their death. Yet, the Frenchman decides instead to try to murder Pi and eat him, but first he is eaten by the Tiger instead.
The other plot twist toward the end, which still leaves me scratching my head, was when Pi and the tiger land on a floating island of algae, trees, and docile meerkats… here Pi is able to eat his fill of juicy algae, drink from freshwater ponds, and eat fish who apparently swim in from the ocean and die… Oh, by the way, as it turns out, the Island also consumes humans at night??? So, inspite of some weeks of luxury and comfort, Pi decides to take his tiger and once again head out to sea. It was at this point, though late in the book, that I began to realize that much more of the story had to do with metaphor and allegory than I had previously taken it. Perhaps, or more likely, probably this whole scene has some sort of metaphysical and religious symbolism that I can’t quite place.
Speaking of religious things, Pi is a very religious boy. Here is where the author was clearly trying to put forth a worldview for his readers to embrace. Pi is what theologians would call a religious pluralist or syncretist. As an Indian boy, he grew up for a love of all things Hindu. During one family vacation, he stumbles into a Roman Catholic church, and subsequently becomes a Chrsitian (I use the term loosely here). It’s not that he rejects Hinduism, but rather he adds Christianity. Later he does the same with Islam, and in his mind there is no contradiction. In fact, this seems to be what the author would have the reader himself do… don’t worry about the nature of truth or the law of contradiction… that, in his mind, is besides the point. One can worship the god of Islam which fiercely claims that there is only one God, and at the same time worship the multitudes of gods and goddesses within the Hindu pantheon.
While this view of reality certainly will appeal to the postmodern mind, it turns out to be both philosophically untenable, and also religiously ignorant and offensive to those who hold dearly to each one of the faiths Pi embraces. How can Pi embrace the Bible and ignore the first commandment – “You shall have no other gods before me”? How can Pi be a devout follower of Islam and yet burn incense to the god Vishnu? How can Pi embrace the pantheism of Hinduism AND the transcendent God of both Islam and Christianity? How can Pi acknowledge pain and suffering from the perspective of both a Hindu (it is an illusion) and Christian (it is very real, and God’s own Son suffered under it)? Simply put, he can’t do this. The syncretistic, postmodern view of ultimate reality that Yann Martel puts fourth may make for an element to a good story, but as a philosophy it is a shoddy bucket that can’t hold water.
Conclusion: Enjoy the story, but don’t turn your brain off to the philosophical implications of Martel’s worldview.