Man Overboard

One of the many and fruitful exaggerations in Yann Martel's Life of Pi is the assertion, made by a minor character, that Pi's story will "make you believe in God." With humor, incisiveness, excellent writing, and an uncompromising fidelity to the messy compulsions of the human heart, what the novel really compels is not belief in God but sympathy for those who seek God. For readers invested in the sacred, it is a well-finished novel about unfinished business.

Young Pi Patel, a zookeeper's son growing up in India in the '60s and '70s, has no trouble believing in God. By age 15, he is simultaneously an active Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, unbeknownst to his agnostic parents, and Pi compares the three religions' stories and practices in rich, quirkily reverent prose. Of Christianity, all Pi initially knows is that "it had a reputation for few gods and great violence. But good schools." Initially, Pi is bemused by Christianity's emphasis on conversion—"religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an ambulance"—and repelled by its "one Story" of crucifixion and atonement, which strike him as "downright weird."

After a few days of visiting a kindly priest, however, Pi is conquered by Christ's message of love. Not much later, a gentle Sufi mystic and baker leads Pi to experience Islam as a "beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion." The teenager also cheerfully agrees with Gandhi that "all religions are true."

What the book is mainly about, as the cover illustration suggests, is Pi's travails once he is trapped on a life raft with an adult Bengal tiger, the last survivor of his father's zoo. Here, Martel's sense of humor gives way to a sense of the absurd, references to God diminish, and Pi's struggle to survive, physically and emotionally, takes center stage.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2003
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