"Life of Pi" Part 1 Discussion Points

Inspiration

Ten or so years ago, I read a review by John Updike in the New York Times Review of Books. It was of a novel by a Brazilian writer, Moacyr Scliar. I forget the title [editor’s note: it’s Max and the Cats], and John Updike did worse: he clearly thought the book as a whole was forgettable... The novel, as far as I can remember, was about a zoo in Berlin run by a Jewish family. The year is 1933 and, not surprisingly, business is bad. The family decides to emigrate to Brazil. Alas, the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther. ... it had the effect on my imagination of electric caffeine. I marvelled. What perfect unity of time, action and place. What stark, rich simplicity. Oh, the wondrous things I could do with this premise

The Nature of Storytelling

There are two points of view in Life of Pi. First, we have the fictional author, and second, we have Pi himself. The fictional author's views are also worth considering at the outset. In the author's note he states:

That's what fiction is about, isn't it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence.

Refer to author's note. Fiction vs truth: Martel encourages the reader to accept that all stories are in fact true. What does that mean? How does that influence our reading of the text?

Pi's point of view is also interesting. He states early on:

I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals

At face value he does not appear to be a reliable narrator because he does exactly this throughout the novel. However, this appears to be deliberate tactic because he leaves it up to each of us to choose the better story, whether "reliable" or not. This will be the one that we can understand and make sense of based on our own worldview and beliefs. The reader is thus complicit in making meaning in a sense, as he must decide which story he/she wants to believe.

Author's note: Martel's style of writing

Introduces idea of good storytelling - authenticity, sets up the reader, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. A recurrent theme in the novel, particularly in part 3. This is enhanced by the interjections made he narrator as the story unfolds. In an interview, Martel mentions his deliberate style of building up to more unbelievable experiences preparing the reader to be more accepting of the unbelievable. Is this perhaps why it easier to choose the story with the animals at the end?

Sloth - reminds him of God as it represents the miracle of life but also reminds him of agnostics (uncertain about the existence of God). Introduces Anthropomorphism - attributing human characteristics to a God or animal. Links to this idea of building towards the believable.

INTERVIEW TAKEN FROM CRIMSON.COM. YANN MARTEL'S RESPONSE TO RELIGION.
FM: Do you consider yourself religious?
YM: I would say yes, in the broadest sense of the term, in the sense that I choose to believe that all this isn’t just the result of happenstance and chemistry. I find faith is a wonderful respite from being reasonable. We’re so trained in the West to be reasonable. It’s yielded great things—it’s resulted in these great technical prolepses that are very impressive, but they in and of themselves don’t give us a reason to live. In the modern Western technological society, it’s very hard to have any kind of faith. And so I took on religious faith and I finally came to agree with what I was discussing in the book. Religious faith makes life interesting.
The book cover

Setting

Part 1 is set in Pondicherry which was renamed Puducherry, and it is still possible to go and see the beautiful Franco-Tamil architecture in that city. There was a zoo in the Botanical Gardens, and in fact, the auteur used the Botanical Gardens to film the zoo scenes in the movie. However, the zoo in the book is mostly fictitious as the Pondicherry Zoo did not have the diverse species described by Pi in the novel. In fact, LitCharts states that it "did not have anything larger than a deer" and certainly no tigers.

Refer to Chapter 3, 5 and 6 - Why Pi? Why does Martel include chapter 3? Again, a good story. Intriguing, mystical and proud. Tension between rationality and irrationality/ religion and science/ logical and illogical/ fact and fiction. Ravi is more popular because he fits a mound he is uncomplicated. Pi, however, does not judge him for this. Note also his identification with Jesus and Muhammad regarding the persecution experienced because of his name.

Chapter 4 - Pi is an observer, not passive but engaging/interactive. This nature is a key element of survival later on. Animals and humans - territorial in nature. We create boundaries, spaces to meet our needs. We do not like this to be disturbed. Discomfort - perhaps why he admires the sloth. Does Religion offer this framework? How? In what way?

Pi's detailed descriptions - as we grow our imagination diminishes, we become skeptical, unbelieving. Does Life of Pi ignite the ability to believe again? See page 19. Hence the vivid descriptions engage the reader and extend the imagination.

Existentialism

Existentialism /ɛgzɪˈstɛnʃ(ə)lɪz(ə)m /

▸ noun [mass noun] a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.

I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he’s not careful.

Many people feel this way. What is the meaning of life? Is it to trudge through each petty day, eking out an existence? This book asks many similar questions.

Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations.

Is this how we live? Are any of us ever truly free?

They found it back in its enclosure, having climbed down into its pit the way it had climbed out, by way of a tree that had fallen over.

We are like animals. We want predictable conditions and to feel safe so we "lock" ourselves up.

Martel got the name “Richard Parker” from Edgar Allen Poe’s nautical novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The name also appears in at least two other factual shipwreck accounts. Martel noticed the recurring “Richard Parkers” and felt that the name must be significant. [LitCharts]
Religion faces the same problem.

Plot Devices

The Emergency is a plot device. It allows Martel a vehicle to convey the protagonist to a lifeboat as a castaway with a tiger.

Open sea - boredom and terror - paradox.

Boundaries and Identity

Religion and zoos are accused of restricting, but is it not in our best interests, as it is for the animals? We seek surety and comfort in the same manner that animals do.

Camouflaged by the bars

Martel says we project onto animals because we are puzzled by their consciousness, but recognize that they are not like us. We have a tendency towards anthropomorphism all the time.

Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.

Chapters 8 - 14 deal with animal psychology. The tiger eating the goat. The lion tamer. Prepares Pi for his ordeal but also prepares the reader to understand Pi's survival in part two. Why is this relevant? Pi's father tells him to see animals as animals. Do not see them as humans yet he often likens their behaviour to humans. How is this contradiction related to the themes of the novel? What is this saying about humans and animals?

It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names.
Witness Simon who is called Peter, Matthew also known as Levi, Nathaniel who is also Bartholomew, Judas, not Iscariot, who took the name Thaddeus, Simeon who went by Niger, Saul who became Paul.

Questions of identity linked to religion once again. Are we who we think we are? Perhaps not.

Piscine is his actual name and it means "pool" in French. In English, its meaning is related to fishes. Both definitions are apt.

Pi renames himself after the humiliating pronounciation of his name becomes unbearable.

It’s Pissing Patel!” ... wearing my crown of thorns.

This metaphor likens his humiliation to that of Jesus. Is this an appropriate metaphor? It is extreme and perhaps offensive to Christians, but ties into the religious symbolism thus far. He shows again how similar man and animals are when he "trains" his peers and teachers to call him Pi through rote and repetition.

At this point, why do you think he has chosen Pi?

Consider the name Pi, which he chose as the alternative:

Oxford Dictionary definitions

Every meaning is profound in a sense, and the British informal definition is especially fitting. He is pious.

It is also worth noting what Martel himself intended by choosing this name. Pi is an irrational number with decimals that go on infinitely, and which is used to make sense of equations related to circles and circumferences. Circles in themselves are symbolic of life and the infinite universe, but he argues that religion is also beyond what we can understand using reason alone, but like this irrational number is used in equations, religion helps us make sense of life.

Doubt

I thought, Darkness is the last thing that religion is. Religion is light.
Pi illuminated
'Where is God? Where is God? Where is God?'

Do we all ask this eventually? Pi accepts that we cannot know if God exists, we must have faith to believe in the unknowable. We must CHOOSE the better path.

What a terrible disease that must be if it could kill God in a man. It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap.

Is rejection of faith a kind of belief?

Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixtion.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt.

However, agnosticism is inconceivable. You must surely believe in something, even if it is an absence of God. Do you agree?

To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

Chapter 7 - Religion. Mr Satish Kumar (biology teacher). Why does Pi consider atheism as a religious faith? Consider the meaning of the word 'belief' here? Why would this be difficult to understand for us? Do we have to agree with Pi? Why is this important? Agnostics live in permanent doubt in limbo.

Snake head

Man and Beast

And there are indecencies even more bizarre: onanists breaking a sweat on monkeys, ponies, birds; a religious freak who cut a snake’s head off; a deranged man who took to urinating in an elk’s mouth.

This emphasizes man's depravity - are we are more base than animals? "Onanism" means masturbation.

She had leaned over, thrust her hand in the cage and waved the end of her sari in the lion’s face, with what intent we never figured out.

Pi also presents people as being dumber than animals. Why is he pointing this out? The Mystery with a capital "M".

I learned the lesson that an animal is an animal, essentially and practically removed from us, twice: once with Father and once with Richard Parker.

Foreshadowing. Our curiosity is whetted once more. How will Richard Parker teach him this? And if this is true, can Richard Parker simply symbolize Pi's animalistic side as the ending suggests might be the case?

“I’m going to show you how dangerous tigers are,” he continued. “I want you to remember this lesson for the rest of your lives.”

Note that this lesson as it is important for later. Pi and the reader must understand his predicament at sea.

... animals don’t escape to somewhere but from something.
Escaping animals usually hide in the very first place they find that gives them a sense of security, and they are dangerous only to those who happen to get between them and their reckoned safe spot.

Pi argues that animals want to be locked up. It's easier then freedom, and the same might be said of people, but in a more philosophical sense. Animals only try to escape from bad zookeepers, and so it is with religion too.

Bengal tiger
Richard Parker still preys on his mind.

Note: Prey is an apt choice of word/wordplay. Pi is almost prey in the boat. Consider also that if Richard Parker is Pi, then does what he had to do to survive at sea also prey on his own mind?

Religion

"Bapu Gandhi said, 'All religions are true.' I just want to love God," I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face. (Piscine) page 75

The novel appears to focus on Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, however, an understanding of Kabbalah is crucial to understanding the text.

My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed.

This theory proposes that "God contracted to make room for the universe". Another word for this process is Tsimtsum, which is the name of the ship that sinks in the second part of the novel. This sinking creates a vacuum in that his family are taken and he is cast adrift. Pi must then "create" his story in this metaphorical vacuum.

SparkNotes helpfully explains further that:

This contraction, called Tsimstum, was followed by light, carried in five vessels. The vessels shattered, causing the sparks of light to sink into matter. God reordered them into five figures, which became the dimensions of our created reality. This seemingly unimportant detail actually foreshadows the main event to come: the sinking of the ship, the Tsimtsum, which gives Pi the room to create his own version of the events that follow. Interestingly, like the five figures that make up reality for Luria, five characters on the lifeboat (including Pi himself) shape Pi’s story.

Chapters 15 - 17 introduces Pi's devotion to his faith. Is this necessary for survival. Compare this view to that of an atheist. Can this be compared? Pi hears the various stories from each faith which he accepts as inherent truths yet he is questioning of them. Do we all do that anyway? Aunty Rohini introduces him to Hinduism see page 54 I am a Hindu because... what shapes our belief? Symbols, stories, relationships, our understanding of the world. Religion helps us make sense of the world. Go to earlier chapters about animals as well and territory. We organize our worlds along a framework. See Prezi by Josh Schaefer

Source: Prezi by Josh Shaefer

Islam

Christianity

Hinduism

Islam and Christianity

Christianity and Hinduism

Islam and Hinduism

All three religions.

Hinduism

I feel at home in a Hindu temple... But religion is more than rite and ritual.

There are pantheistic aspects of Hinduism which help us to understand his melding of faiths.

PANTHEISM PANΘIːɪZ(Ə)M

noun 1 a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God. 2 the worship or tolerance of many gods.

Note: This is an interesting question. Rite and ritual are comforting and familiar, which we crave, but is true faith hidden in this?

Hindu Temple

Understanding Hinduism

That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing. The finite within the infinite, the infinite within the finite. If you ask me how Brahman and atman relate precisely, I would say in the same way the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate: mysteriously.

Basics of Hinduism From kauai's Hindu Monastery

  1. Hindus believe in a one, all-pervasive Supreme Being who is both immanent and transcendent, both Creator and Unmanifest Reality.
  2. Hindus believe in the divinity of the four Vedas, the world's most ancient scripture, and venerate the Agamas as equally revealed. These primordial hymns are God's word and the bedrock of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion.
  3. Hindus believe that the universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation and dissolution.
  4. Hindus believe in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each individual creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words and deeds.
  5. Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates, evolving through many births until all karmas have been resolved, and moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth, is attained. Not a single soul will be deprived of this destiny.
  6. Hindus believe that divine beings exist in unseen worlds and that temple worship, rituals, sacraments and personal devotionals create a communion with these devas and Gods.
  7. Hindus believe that an enlightened master, or satguru, is essential to know the Transcendent Absolute, as are personal discipline, good conduct, purification, pilgrimage, self-inquiry, meditation and surrender in God.
  8. Hindus believe that all life is sacred, to be loved and revered, and therefore practice ahimsa, noninjury, in thought, word and deed.
  9. Hindus believe that no religion teaches the only way to salvation above all others, but that all genuine paths are facets of God's Light, deserving tolerance and understanding.

Hinduism, the world's oldest religion, has no beginning--it precedes recorded history. It has no human founder. It is a mystical religion, leading the devotee to personally experience the Truth within, finally reaching the pinnacle of consciousness where man and God are one. Hinduism has four main denominations--Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Smartism.

https://www.himalayanacademy.com/readlearn/basics/nine-beliefs

Pi accepts this pantheistic view and tells the story of Krishna when he was a cowherd. He met with milkmaids nightly to dance but as soon as one became jealous or possessive, he would disappear. In Pi's attempt to avoid possessiveness regarding faith, is he being reductionist? Or is he once again showing that truth can be relative?

REDUCTIONISM /RɪˈDɅKƩ(Ə)NɪZ(Ə)M /

noun [mass noun] often derogatory the practice of analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.

Christianity

I was fourteen years old—and a well-content Hindu on a holiday—when I met Jesus Christ.
Sacred Heart
And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, “Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.” “Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.” “Hallelujah, my son.” “Hallelujah, Father.”

In comparison to Hindu beliefs:

I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified—and at the hands of mere humans, to boot.

Pi concludes:

It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar die.

An "avatar" in Hindu religion is easily misunderstood. Note the definition below:

For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?

Pi is moved by Christ's sacrifice and by Father Martin's patience and acceptance of him.

The cross symbolises God's sacrifice of His only Son.

Pi cannot understand why Christianity would allow itself to be tainted by death in this way, and kept asking for more stories, but Father Martin said this was the only story. It is the basis for God's love.

Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.
Love
That is God as God should be. With shine and power and might. Such as can rescue and save and put down evil.
Love, said Father Martin.
Love, repeated Father Martin.

Why does he repeat "love"? Is this unique to Christianity?

I couldn’t get Him out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.
Christianity is a religion in a rush. Look at the world created in seven days.
In a moment you are lost or saved.

When Pi asks to convert to Christianity, Father Martin says:

“You already are, Piscine—in your heart. Whoever meets Christ in good faith is a Christian. Here in Munnar you met Christ.”

To become a Christian requires much more than this. It is an acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's personal saviour. Pi tends towards reductionism, which might seem appealing to universalists, but it means that he contradicts himself by claiming to be an adherent of any of the faiths he claims to follow at all. LitCharts claims that he "accepts metaphysical truth as relative" and is thus able to choose "religions as a beautiful way to view the universe".

But we should not cling! A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists!

fundamentalist fʌndəˈmɛnt(ə)lɪst/

noun 1 a person who believes in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture in a religion.

universalist /juːnɪˈvəːs(ə)lɪst /

▸ noun 1 Christian Theology a person who believes that all humankind will eventually be saved. 2 a person advocating loyalty to and concern for others without regard to national or other allegiances: [as modifier] it is a policy founded on universalist principles.

Theismˈθiːɪz(ə)m

noun 1 belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.

Islam

Pi has a negative view of Islam until he meets the Muslim baker.

Islam had a reputation worse than Christianity’s—fewer gods, greater violence

Pi tries to appear balanced by offering a criticism of each religion, followed by the reason for his conversion. Does this convince you of the authenticity of these concurrent conversions?

So it went the first time I saw a Muslim pray—quick, necessary, physical, muttered, striking.

Pi claims that religion "is more than rite and ritual", but like the animals in the zoo that crave ritual, he too is drawn to it in his worship. This is not enough to sustain faith, and it is only when he goes to see the baker again that he asks what it is about:

“It is about the Beloved"... I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.

We learn that the baker is a Sufi, a Muslim mystic, seeking "fana, union with God". Like Christians, his relationship with God is described as "personal and loving".

Sufism, mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. [Britannica.com]
“If you take two steps towards God,” he used to tell me, “God runs to you!”

Chapter 21 is the author's voice trying to make sense of what Pi has told him:

I have just spent most of an afternoon with him. Our encounters always leave me weary of the glum contentment that characterizes my life. What were those words he used that struck me? Ah, yes: “dry, yeastless factuality”, “the better story”. I take pen and paper out and write: Words of divine consciousness: moral exaltation; lasting feelings of elevation, elation, joy; a quickening of the moral sense, which strikes one as more important than an intellectual understanding of things; an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably. I pause. What of God’s silence? I think it over. I add: An intellect confounded yet a trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose.

Note: Chapter 21-22 are the key. Can you tell why? Is the core of this tale "the better story"? The "dry, yeastless factuality" is repeated to emphasize its importance. Why is it important?

Light.
I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.
Deathbed
“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,”

Can you love more than one God? Pi seems to think they are all one and the same, but this is not possible or they would claim this truth themselves. All the same, the book suggests that the different religions have more in common than proponents of each care to admit.

At the rate you’re going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life.”

His brother teases him, in much the same way as any critic of his approach might.

These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.” But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

Faith as it stands is hypocritical. What would Jesus do? Certainly not expect a Christian to walk past a beggar and claim to be a Christian based on dogma alone.

“If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?”

He is being reductionist again. Do you agree? Can all religious beliefs lead to a happy afterlife?

Wherever I laid it I felt special affection for the patch of ground beneath it and the immediate surroundings, which to me is a clear indication that it was a good prayer rug because it helped me remember that the earth is the creation of God and sacred the same all over.

Pi romanticises religion, but is he missing the point entirely? Is it about a prayer rug, or the earth under it? What is it about?

The water trickled down my face and down my neck; though just a beaker’s worth, it had the refreshing effect of a monsoon rain.

At the same time as getting a prayer rug, he is baptized, and describes the ecstasy of the moment as a monsoon. He is baptised once again later in the story by his own tears.

When the two Kumars meet, we see science and religion come together, one to praise God and the other nature, when each gazes upon the zebra for the first time. This symmetry represents the symmetry between religion and zoology (or science) which runs throughout the novel, from the religious and sloth studies in the exposition, through to the animal vs the more factual account at the end.

The better story

All are instances of that animal equivalent of anthropomorphism: zoomorphism, where an animal takes a human being, or another animal, to be one of its kind.

If animals choose "a better story" by accepting other species as belonging to their own when necessary, shouldn't we? We are being prepared for his strange journey again here.

Pi's school's motto in the four photographs he has from his childhood says:

Nil magnum nisi bonum. No greatness without goodness.

One wonders if this has had an impact on him. Pi has told the tale as the "good" potagonist, and separated Richard Parker entirely from himself. But could this be because Richard Parker represents his darker side?

Things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to, but what can you do? You must take life the way it comes at you and make the best of it.

Note: Predict what will happen. We are told:

This story has a happy ending.
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