The Life of Pi is Yann Martell’s best selling yarn of the Pondicherry-born Pi (aka Piscine Molitor Patel) made into film under the direction of Ang Lee (Li Ang to the Chinese), the Taiwan-born colleague of Spike Lee and known for directing the controversial Brokeback Mountain film of same-sex affections.
Out title for this article is from our feeble translation of the Chinese movie title (the “awesome” may also be translated as “bizarre, weird, strange, illusory and/or magical”) currently showing both on regular and 3D screens. I saw the 3D version, worth the ¥-cost, allowing me to commune with the zoo residents of the old Pondicherry Botanical Gardens up close and personal. Awesome.
I start at the edges.
There is Gérard Depardieu, the renowned French actor and director who is three years our junior but whose recent mid-girth images double ours. He plays a French cook aboard the ill-fated Japanese cargo ship for carnivorous sailors. He had no sympathy for the vegetarian characters from India sailing across the Pacific.
We already mentioned France’s Pondicherry, which is set to introduce the character of Pi and to narrate the circumstances that led to the voyage, long in the book telling but marvelously and powerfully cinematographed at the opening of the movie.
Pi’s family decides to move to Canada with their menagerie when public funds in Pondicherry were no longer extended to the maintenance of the gardens and its animals. Crossing the Marianas Trench, complete with a map and a foreboding “deep” in the movie, they run into a storm that we are only too familiar with in our protracted stays in places like Oahu, Majuro, Nuku’alofa, Kolonia, Hagatña, and Saipan.
The plot thickens to the main story, which is how a vegetarian Hindu-Christian survives 288 days afloat the misnomered “Pacific” ocean with a ferocious fully-fanged misnamed (Richard Parker) Bengali tiger on a 30-passenger lifeboat.
The tongue-in-cheek reference to religious practices and the God-speak is part of the context. Our young teenager Pi embraces Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam before he reaches puberty, to the great dismay of his science-enamored parents who would rather that he makes a choice of practice rather than fall into the nebulous world of the muddled mixed middle.
Then, we get to the final confrontation between the young teenager, the tiger, and the sea.
Facing the wide expanse of the awesome and aweful universe, Pi’s Hinduism remains unalterably all embracing in his affirmation of the unfathomable mysteries of his life. Though not shown to be madrasah-trained, with a laser-beamed disciplined awareness of bean counting cans of water and biscuits/wafers, Pi remains alert to the limits of his possibilities and brave enough to know in his bones that if elements in one’s surrounding is non-compliant, like Richard Parker, it can, at least, be trained.
Then life runs into its illusions, actual in Pi’s telling, imagined as a mirage to those familiar with the desert and the open seas. Pi and Parker run into a verdant island, a floating huge algae, hospitable and sustaining during day but acidic and toxic at night. Pi had a pond of fresh water and roots to fill his carb needs, and Parker had thousands of malleable creatures for lunch, but the island turned the evening shadows into a nightmare. The duo survived and after filling up provisions, sailed away.
A strange catholic pieta comes through as the exhausted Pi finally cradles on his lap the head of the equally emaciated tiger, the earlier allusion to the mysteries of the Christ of compassion with a padre at a Portuguese church. The religious theme got a final brush in the cinematographic tableau before it hit the shores of Mexico.
“I have a story that will make you believe in God,” is a line early on in the novel and in the movie. Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam gets early billing, with Judaism’s Kabbalah getting a line when Pi the professor claims he lectures on the subject also.
Japanese insurance company accountants that covered the cargo ship provide the epilogue segment of the film, interviewing their sole survivor for their report. Pi’s story was too fantastic to be believed, so Pi personified the zebra, hyena, gorilla, and the tiger with those of his parents and the ship’s cook. The accountants’ report stayed with the story of Pi and the tiger.
Belief in God is an account of the real. (Pi’s pi in one scene is 3.14, then to the nth degree. It is also represented by 22/7, and 335/113, never a whole number!) In any case, however we relate our story, stories reveal beliefs, not beliefs determining stories.
Pi’s complaint was that the tiger never even bothered to say “goodbye.” In an earlier episode before he left Pondicherry and his first heartthrob, Pi recalled that the parting did not include uttering “goodbye.”
For three thousand years, humankind told their story in God-speak, too. In the life of this meat-eating former teenager from Northern Philippines, God walked away without saying “goodbye” as well. “For Unto Us a Child is Born” is the season’s wondrous and awesome theme, not the Magi’s appearance, and their going away without saying goodbye.
I am with Pi on God in this one.
Jaime R. Vergara (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former PSS teacher and is currently writing from the campus of Shenyang Aerospace University in China.