On the eve of the Oscars, let us consider the book behind the “Life of Pi”, nominated for 11 academy awards. The make-believe forward to the book relates a random but portentous conversation between the author and an elderly man he meets in a coffee house in India. As they talk, the man says “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” The conversation leads the author to a man called Pi and his fantastic story of survival for over 200 days at sea in the company of a Bengal tiger. Whether the novel and the invented forward, is an affirmation of God is debatable.
It is more likely a tribute to the power of imagination and our ability to convert our worldly experiences into stories that can rise above the limits of pure reality.
Yes, the main character so loves the concept of God that he is simultaneously a devout Christian, Hindu and Moslem. Yes, at the moment he is cast into the sea, he cries “What is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker? Is it no more than to shine at practicalities — the getting of food, clothing and shelter? Why can’t reason give greater answers?”
Some reviewers see in the film the triumph of religion, but jump to the end of the tale when Pi is on dry land, telling his story to two insurance investigators looking into the shipwreck that set Pi adrift. When he tells them the story with the tiger, they don’t believe it. So he gives them a different story, one that has people instead of animals, and they seem more comfortable.
But he presses on. “Since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”
A wonderful essay by Florence Stratton gets to the heart of the book — to her, it’s all about the “better story”. Stratton reminds us that the idea of the “better story” shows up elsewhere in the book.
She writes, “Agnostics, Pi tells us, ‘lack imagination and miss the better story’ God’s existence, in other words, is a matter neither of fact nor of faith, but rather is a better story than the one told by those who doubt or deny God’s existence.”
A better story is one that inspires us, keeps us alive in the face of unbearable adversity, shows us how to be moral creatures. If it achieves all that, does it matter whether it comes from inside us or comes from some higher sentient being? If we, like the two insurance investigators, can’t know which is true, does the story lose power because it springs from human imagination rather than an outside force?