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The article first appeared in The Platform in the 4th of November 2012.

Life of Pi: A Modern (Mis)understanding of Religion

Life of Pi By Yann Martell 326 pages. Mariner Books: 2003 (2001).

Life of Pi tie-in

Contemporary literature only rarely tackles life’s ultimate meaning. It seems the challenge is now different; how to live without it? Any book that speaks to the contrary, and lionised for its success as well as its resonance, is a book worthy of interest. Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one such book. Winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize, it is now the subject of a forthcoming film. So before Hollywood could ruin it for me, I decided finally to read it. Promising to convince you of God, its claims, as well as success, are surprising. And how? By telling a story, both fantastic and learned, of a young Indian boy called Pi who survives a ship wreck for 227 days across the Pacific until he reaches Mexico, with only a 450-pound Bengal tiger for company.

After reading this you will never look at the sea, zoos and tigers the same again. Martel patiently aggregates detail upon detail until the Pacific is alive, becoming a character in and of itself. Every page is brim full of zoological lore and the tiger is rendered so authentically; one begins to wonder how the author did his research. And yet for all this texture, the style is deliciously limpid. Interestingly, despite being written in the first person, as readers we are not consumed by Pi. Barred from his interior, as listeners we are hooked, perpetually ruminating on how it will convince us of God.

The story is split it into three parts and the argument is deceptively simple. Part 1: Pi believes in and loves God. The truth of any one religion is not important. God’s ultimate reality is more real than any one religion and they can serve to obscure him. And lest you think otherwise, animals are not cuddly. Part 2: Pi survives the shipwreck and lands in Mexico. Just him and the tiger. It was a difficult journey. Part 3: When Pi attempts to make others believe him, they find they can’t. Impossible, they say, according to reason it is unbelievable. So instead he tells them a story that is rationally plausible. Which one are we to believe? The ship sank, Pi survived. Nothing else is factually verifiable. How does one choose? According to Pi – which story tells a better story? “And so it is with God”.

But let’s not misrepresent this – the book is not an argument. While Life of Pi is a vivid and at times gripping story, it is also something more profound. It is a sincere meditation on religion, on the very meaning of faith, and the meaning of God. It is an attempt to make sense of how to salvage the multiple truth narratives that our past has left us, and how to reconcile them with the narrative told by reason. According to this book, the past is unknown having left behind only traces. The rational story constructs a narrative from these traces alone. Religions, on the other hand, are the stories we told ourselves on the way here. Of these two, neither narrative excludes the other. Religions are ‘better’, in the sense that they give meaning, of how we got here and why. Ultimately then, it’s not the truth of religion that is important, it is the meaning faith gives to life.

Although sincere, this meditation is so characteristically modern. Only our age could separate ‘truth’ from ‘meaning’, and only a modern mentality could regard truth irrelevant or be embarrassed by it. The majority of the faithful in the past, and I dare say, the majority of the faithful now, could not imagine doing so – it would be incomprehensible. Unpalatable as it may be, I suspect that the majority of the faithful, then and now, do not find religions meaningful yet distinct from the truth; they find religion meaningful precisely because they believe them to be true. While they could intellectually understand how religions can give a meaning to life, how hard would they struggle for a meaning of their own choosing? If the end of their strivings were not ‘true’, at least to them, then for what ends did they struggle? What drove the mystic to lacerate himself, the pilgrim to traverse immense distances, and let’s not be cuddly about this, the warrior who fights and martyrs himself? Was it only because religion told a better story, and made life ‘seem’ more meaningful? And us pondering at the labours of the past, without talk of ‘truth’ – are we not left in the dark about their actions?

Clearly then, in rendering the majority of the faithful incomprehensible, this book tells us more about our age than the faith it struggles with. In the end, it is further proof of our age’s growing inability to conceive of faith or to understand its people.

Further Reading

Excerpt – PDF.

Book Reviews

‘Animal Magnetism’ – Justine Jordan – Guardian, ‘Taming the Tiger’ – James Krist, NY Times, ‘Credulity’* – James Woods – LRB,  “Hollow at the core”: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – Florence Stratton – Studies in Canadian Literature*.


* – Recommended.