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Presented by State Library Victoria

Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Which Story Is Better?

Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a story about survival, storytelling, and faith. It follows Pi, a boy stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger named Richard Parker and his story of surviving against all odds after being the only survivor of a ship that sunk. The story of his time on the boat begins with Pi being on the lifeboat with three other animals (aside from Richard Parker) before it was only him and the ferocious tiger remaining. At the end of the book, however, the reader is presented with another story, a far more gruesome one. One where Pi is not on the lifeboat with a spotted hyena, a Bengal tiger, a zebra, and an orangutan but rather his mother, an angry cook, and an injured Taiwanese sailor. Eventually, all the other members of the boat are killed, first the sailor by the cook, then Pi’s mother and eventually the cook himself by Pi in an act of revenge. Pi is then on his own, left to survive against the harsh terrain of the ocean and loneliness for 227 days. The reader is then presented with a choice, which story would they like to believe? Pi himself says this at the end of the book: “so tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?” Although it may seem like a hard decision, as the first story is told in such a detailed way and the second story is more possible than the first, there is a clear answer. The second story, the one without animals, is better than the story with animals.

If the reader chooses the first story, they are buying into the idea that “ignorance is bliss”, showing nativity, immaturity and a blatant disregard for the truth. The first story is bright, with colour animals and glowing algae, almost as if it can be pictured as a more complex children’s story. It does deal with Pi’s faith and the struggle of survival, but it does so while including a tiger on a boat, hoards of meerkats on a carnivorous island (an island that no one can or has been able to find) and a hyena getting seasick. It’s comforting to believe in this story, to ignore the idea that humans could be capable of such brutality and cruel behaviours in favour of a teenage boy seemingly bonding with a tiger. By choosing to believe in the first story, the reader favours ignorance towards the atrocities that may have occurred on the boat, showing a sense of immaturity by following positive and “fun” stories and disregarding what is most likely the truth. The phrase “ignorance is bliss” captures the mindset of the reader who prefers the story with animals, as they would rather live a life of nativity and blindness to the horrors of the world around them. 

Storytelling is essential in Life of Pi, but it can also be viewed as manipulative. In George Orwell’s Politics and the English Langue, he says that “political language−and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists−−is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable. and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Here there is overlap with Life of Pi, as Pi uses the animals to cover the murders and killings that occurred on the boat and makes the first story more believable through manipulating language and constructing an interesting and compelling narrative. Storytelling makes the first story believable, with small details and finely woven words constructed to make the animals real and Richard Parker viable. In the second story, all of these details are gone, and the truth is laid bare. Storytelling is no longer an intricate and wonderful act created by Pi, but a painful and longing feeling hanging between each word he says. Storytelling is a primary theme in Life of Pi, and while one story may be true for Pi emotionally, the second story is closer to the factual truth. For Pi, storytelling is also a means of survival. It’s a coping mechanism, used to disguise the brutality of what he witnessed and experienced on the lifeboat with the other people (e.g. after his mother’s death, the cook who had killed her threw his mother’s severed head at Pi). Pi even admits that his first story is fiction, saying “That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out the essence?”. He admits that he uses storytelling to transform the bleakness of the human-story and takes some of the traits from that story and twists them to make the story with animals in order to make the first story (the humans being represented as animals, Richard Parker being a symbol of Pi’s “inner-monster”/lack of humanity during his time on the boat). The first story, the one with animals, is a representation of how a person can use storytelling to manipulate and somewhat offer comfort to the reader in order to ignore the true brutality, savagery and inhumanity that the second story holds. Therefore, it can be determined that the first story is merely a coping mechanism and a fabrication of true events so that humanity and Pi do not have to live with the atrocities of what happened to Pi during his time on the lifeboat. The second story is bland and unfortunately, is the bitter truth. The first story may be a comforting lie, but that does not make it better than the second. The fact that Pi has used his storytelling abilities to craft the first story out of the second means that the meaning and messages from the second story are lost, therefore making the story without animals easier to understand and free from symbols and phrasing that confuses the reader.

The second story shows true human nature and offers a way humans can learn about themselves. The story without animals is a learning experience in the same way that humanity looks back and reflects upon conflicts, wars and other unfavourable events from the past in order to avoid any future repetition of similar events. Pi says that believability is not what people should look for in his story (“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”) but regardless of whether the second story is true due to its believability, it has something the first story does not, a real lesson on humanity and survival. In the first story, Pi survives by spending his time trying to desensitise Richard Parker to himself, as well as trying to keep both of them alive. However, in the second story, it is just Pi struggling to balance his deteriorating mental health caused by the barbarity of what he has experienced while also trying to survive against the harsh conditions of life at sea. It demonstrates true human endeavour, managing to stay alive for 227 days while isolated from the world and scarred from psychological trauma and not only being able to adapt to returning to human society but also managing to thrive in it just as well as did Pi did before his family left India. Although it is more sad and painful to read than the first, it does have a hopeful aspect to it. Pi was alone, he was scared and only a teenager with nowhere to go and no one to help him. But he persevered, he survived. He adapted and grew and eventually, he lived. There are two things the reader can learn from the story, one is that humans can be cruel and selfish, and the other is that no matter how hard life can be, a person can continue to live and eventually, thrive. 

Life of Pi by Yann Martel contains two stories. One filled with animals on a boat and glowing algae islands, and the other telling the story of humanity at its worst. However, only one of these stories should be believed. The first story represents ignorance to the harsh reality of life, favouring compelling stories over truth and real human nature. The second story is one that does not have the intricate art of storytelling involved in its telling, instead, using words to convey clear meanings and truth. But as well as being realistic about human nature and survival, the second story, the story without animals, is better because it shows hope. Hope that humans can adapt, grow and change to survive and eventually, begin to live despite their trauma. It has a message that if one teenage boy without his family can last 227 days on a boat alone at sea, the reader can also preserve through any problem and return to not just living, but thriving in their life and their world. The second story is better because Pi gets through loss and savagery, starvation and pain, and eventually Pi gets to have the family life he was meant to have when he left India all those years ago.