I read Life of Pi years ago and I thought it was a pretty stunning book (at least once you get past the turgid first 100 or so pages – seriously ugh so boring). The film adaptation, released in Australia on New Year’s Day, is also pretty stunning. But it’s frustrating for the exact same reasons the book was frustrating.
Life of Pi is, no shit, the story of the life of Pi (played as a teen by Suraj Sharma and as an adult by Irrfan Khan), who survives several hundred days floating on a lifeboat after the freighter he was catching sinks en route from India to Canada. That’s already pretty incredible, but the real hook of Pi’s tale is that he says it will make you believe in God, because he offers two different “interpretations” about what happened on the lifeboat.
In one, Pi was stranded with four zoo animals his father was transporting to Canada, including a fearsome tiger named Richard Parker; in the other, Pi was stranded with four of the freighter’s human passengers, including a brutish cook who murdered Pi’s mother in front of him, and who in turn was murdered by Pi in revenge.
Those who listen to Pi’s story all believe he was stranded with the tiger – because it’s better to believe a bold, fantastic, impossible story than to acknowledge the mundane (at best) or horrific (at worst) truth. It’s better to put faith in God, or gods, than to confront nihilistic reality.
Well – no, it isn’t. A story that’s warm, cuddly B.S. is still B.S. It’s nice to believe that a jolly bearded man who rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer brings you your Christmas parents, and they’re not just purchased by your consumer-driven parents, but you wouldn’t expect anyone but a child to swallow such a concept.
Look: Life of Pi‘s vision of God – this benign lodestar of kindness and love, free of dogma and hatred – is lovely. If I were into religion or spirituality, I’d be into that (probably because it’s so harmless. Anyone could accept Pi’s God without really having to put in any effort). But it’s rooted in the assumption that without faith you can’t have wonder, that nothing is wonderful unless it can be explained by the guiding hand of God. Which… no. Emphatic no. If Pi survived purely by chance, or by his own skill, by something that can’t be dismissed as merely “some deity did it” – that is wonderful.
The frustration is the good kind of frustration. I like that Life of Pi is thoughtful about its depiction of faith, that it offers something to chew on, that it makes Pi an unreliable narrator (in addition to claiming that he drifted into a floating carnivorous island populated by meerkats, he claims that as a schoolboy he memorised Pi, the mathematical symbol, to about a billion places – which both cast him as a fanciful liar). But it offers a choice between two different versions of reality, one with God and one without, and I’m not convinced by the one it chooses.