When my wife finished Yann Martel’s Life of Pi she said, “You’ve got to read this book!” Philosophical novels don’t often capture the interest of publishers or agents, but when they manage to slip through the fine-mesh mail-armor of the guild, they sometimes become best-sellers. Publishers often underestimate the intelligence and the hunger of the average reader. I was glad to have something so provocative to read on my long daily commute. Since the book was published in 2001 I won’t worry too much about spoiler alerts. It should come as no surprise that the biblical flood theme comes through a book where a zookeeper’s son is stranded on a lifeboat with various forms of wildlife. The most unexpected and endearing member of this menagerie, the tiger Richard Parker, is also the most deadly. How easy it would be to spin off in a Melvillesque direction of the beast as a representation of an uncomfortable God! Indeed, when Richard Parker scampers away when the boat runs aground, Pi laments how it was like losing God.
Setting the stage for this development is the tale of three religions. As a boy raised in India Piscine (Pi) is surrounded by traditional Hindu culture. On a family vacation he notices that atop the three hills are three houses of worship: Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. Curiosity draws the young boy in, and by the end of part one he is happily and concurrently Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, to the deep chagrin of the various religious leaders. They, coincidentally, all meet Pi with his parents one day in the park and each insists that although they encourage the boy’s continued membership in their tradition, he must drop the other two. Like any sensible person, Pi has chosen the safe road when it comes to conflicting religions: accept them all. It is only religion itself that deconstructs his triune belief system.
After his eventual rescue, Pi is questioned by insurance agents concerning the fate of the ship. They cannot believe his incredible tale, because they can only believe what they have seen for themselves. Pi asks, “What do you do when you’re in the dark?” An appropriate question for us all. This story is a parable about perceiving more than what can be seen. Tigers are hidden all around. Sometimes we call them Hobbes. Sometimes Richard Parker. They are protectors and they are dangerous. Some people call them God. In the end our protagonist is left without the divine presence that had kept him alive all the way across the Pacific Ocean. When the book is over, I think we would all admit, it is the tiger that we miss most of all.