The Life of Pi is a novel about lifeboats, tigers, religion, and the universality and power of human narrative. Perhaps, it proposes, we can redeem the world through our imagination, to take the mundanely cruel and transform it through words and symbols into a sign of hope. Pi Patel, a zookeeper’s son from Pondicherry, India, is involved in a shipwreck and cast out onto the Pacific Ocean in a life raft. Through his experiences of survival, he realizes his dependence on the sea and the force of human will. Much of it can be taken as religious allegory or a statement of faith (as America’s President would apparently have it).
Critics have noted all of these things. They also note perhaps the most important part of the story: it involves a tiger. Yes, you might call it a felino-centric reading, but when I read Life of Pi I could hardly be expected to divorce myself from my own species origin. Perhaps the genius of the novel is that, despite being a tiger (and maybe this is true for you humans out there) I was able to suspend that part of me for awhile and think how much trouble we cause for you humans sometimes. Pi is meant to be the protagonist. It is in his mind that the novel lives, or at least in his story. Yet without the tiger, as Pi says, the scraggly human could never have found the will to live.
I have less to say on the topic of Richard Parker than on Shere Khan. Not necessarily because I believe that the latter is in any way a more accurate or inspiring portrayal of my kind. No, I would say instead that Richard Parker serves a different purpose. He is neither protagonist nor antagonist. In some ways, he is less a character than (depending on you interpretation) a narrative device or a symbolic representation of one aspect or another of Pi’s internal being. The book spends most of its time in a tension with Richard Parker. Real or a fabrication? Savage or noble? A metaphor for human-ecological coexistence or a hungry and insatiable killer? These are provocative ambiguities, and are simply more difficult to address in a brief post. Instead of trying to arrive at a comprehensive and final judgment on Richard Parker and his role in the novel, I would like to leave the conversation open and invite my readers to reply to my editor online.
Pi’s feline is named after a character in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I have not read this book, so this information does little except insofar as I understand that this name also coincides with sailors who were involved in cannibalism incidents, which makes it a suitable name indeed. Parker is both much stronger physically than his human fellow passenger and dependent on him at the same time. It is not in avoiding each other (which, on a lifeboat, is impossible) or in overcoming each other that harmony is achieved. Instead, they come into a real, messy, and often terrifying relationship. I have no idea what the sociologists or psychologists would say about Pi or Richard Parker or the strange and spiritual way that they relate on that lifeboat. Having the facts might be useful. It would clarify matters significantly and tell us whether Richard Parker is real or not. Of course, that has little or nothing to do with how powerful and necessary Parker is for Pi and for the reader. “Mere” story has more force to change people and the world than we sometimes realize.
I can’t really talk about Parker’s depiction. His portrayal is believable on the one hand, but on the other the story he inhabits can be utterly fantastical. The role he serves is to the story. What disturbs me about this story is how well it conveys a narrative where tension and opposition appear to be a source of strength for the young human. Only in relationship with the tiger can he survive, but that relationship is troubled. Further, there is an indication in the story that Pi is mastering this beast, this animal nature of his, through this story about him and the tiger in the lifeboat. It still presents tigers, like the jungle book, as somehow lesser, simply because we cannot think or believe in God in the way humans claim to. That said, the portrait of tigers here is legitimately glorious in some ways. At least we are not skittering away like mice in fear of humans. Backed into a corner, we can be reasonable if our lives depend on it. That’s hopeful.
One more thing. The novel ends with something of a challenge: if we cannot prove whether one story is true or another, which should we choose to believe? Pi says that this is the way it goes with God as well. Well, as a denizen of the afterlife, I’m beginning to suspect something truly sinister. For the last the nailstorms have been falling with greater and greater ferocity. This could be considered an anomaly, but it appears that some of the tigers are losing their agility. I fear this place could be decaying from the inside. What does this say? I couldn’t tell you. I wish I could ask Richard Parker, if he exists. He seems fairly wise.