Warning: Contains spoilers
Whenever I buy a new book, I always read the last line. It's a perverse pleasure, I despise myself for doing so, but more so, I loathe myself for enjoying it. Yes, I suppose you could call me a masochist with severe emotional issues. Life of Pi is written by Yann Martel, who won The Man booker prize, and is currently being adapted to the hollywood screens by Ang Lee.
The last line of this novel goes like this: "Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger". In my book, this is what I consider a satisfying last line- revealing of the plot but also not ruining the book. Everyone knows that the hero of this novel survives; it is, after all, a tale of survival, as described in the summary. Consequently, because this last line did not shock me and make me question the whole plot twist, I decided that this book was worth a long read (which means that I would read it on several days and not in one go). I read some chapters in the tube, some in class when the seminars got dull, walking to work, during breakfast and snuggled up in bed. It was a great read, and I was satisfied with the narrative, until I read the last chapter. It was so unexpected and left me hanging so quickly that I marveled at Martel's talent to sneak up on the reader without him noticing it. I was caught off guard and was left wanting more (we have an expression for this in french: Rester sur sa faim -to stay on one's own hunger). The ending is, for me, what really elevated the novel from satisfying to genius, and Martel does an excellent job playing with the reader.
The story begins with Pi, the son of a zookeeper in India, who recounts his childhood. He remembers his fascination with the animals-especially the dangerous ones, and his curiosity with absolute faith, leading him to practice Hinduism, Christianity and Islam at the same time. The first part of the book is mainly focused on science and this little boy's perception of religion. The reader knows, then, that the book will evolve around religion, faith, but mostly- about choice. With Pi explaining the traits of each religion he finds attractive, the reader is forced the choose to either believe or not. Although Pi's childhood is a large part of the novel, the narrative eventually shifts to the main story: the sinking of a cargo ship in the Pacific.
In the second part, Pi and his family are moving to Canada, where they are planning on selling their animals. To do this, they must travel with them on a cargo ship. The ship sinks and Pi find himself thrown on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, a hyena, a zebra and a female orang-utan. What follows is an amazing journey through faith, life and death -punctured by occasional disturbing and fascinating events. Seven months later, when Pi's lifeboat finally touches ground in Mexico, he is interviewed by two japanese men. He recounts his tale the way we read it, the way we believed it throughout the whole book (although we are asked to take leaps of faith). He recounts how the tiger killed the hyena, the zebra and the female orang-utan, how he had to train the tiger to survive, and how he found a magic island that seemed to swallow anything that set foot on it. This is the version we are being told throughout the whole book, the version we are inclined to believe. It is the adventurous version, the brave version, the one that makes us believe in faith, survival, strength and life. Beautiful words that do not seduce and convince the two interviewers. When faced with their incredulous questions and their disbelief, Pi finally gives account of another version, a darker, more sinister yet more realistic version.
He was thrown on the lifeboat with his mother, a sailor, and a cook. The same facts are taken into account, but without any animals this time: this story is far more brutal and savage. The interviewers slowly realize that each of the animals correspond to the people on the lifeboat : the mother, the cook and the sailor. What also comes into light is the parallel between the Tiger and Pi, who, in this version, killed and ate them for his own survival. From this point, the reader is forced, like the two interviewers, to make a choice: which version do they believe in ? In the end, the interviewers choose the animal version, just like Pi.
When asked about the structure of the novel, Martel admits that it was specifically designed so that the reader would be forced, subconsciously, to choose whether he would believe or not, so that the ending would be theirs. He is, throughout most part of the book, asking us if we have faith or not, and if we are ready to walk that extra mile to believe, despite the turn of the incredible events. He argues that the core of the story lies here : in this choice. Choosing the better story- the one with animals or the one with people. Interestingly enough, this choice is also at the center of his religious faith: choosing the better story.
What Martel makes us question eventually, is reason over faith -the ultimate debate. However he rejoices in the fact that he is making the choice extremely difficult for the reader. Jumping from one story to another is what Martel wants us to be doing- jumping from faith to reason; and to make this choice even harder he wrote the incident of the magic island, where the meerkats' bones were found in Pi's boat at the end. This episode occurs shortly after Pi, who has become blind for a period of time, encounters another blind survivor, at lost in the Pacific as well. At this point, disbelief kicks in and the reader is trying to make sense of the story, thus asking reason to come in. The reader shakes his head in disbelief and asks of the author the truth; yet when he is given one reality of the truth he is cornered in his own trap: asking for the truth results in being given a darker version, an uglier version of the story, with only flesh and blood.
For Martel, who exposes this post-modernist view, subjectivity is truth. There is no ultimate truth to Pi's survival, only what you believe. And in Pi's own words, let me ask you this: "Which is the better story?".