Two officials from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport, Tomohiro Okamoto and Atsuro Chiba, are in California on unrelated business when they hear that Pi has made landfall in Tomatlán, Mexico. The Ministry directs them to speak with Pi, the lone survivor of the Japanese Tsimtsum, to try to better understand why the ship sank. Okamoto looks at a map and accidentally confuses Tomatán, in Baja California, with Tomatlán in Mexico. He decides to drive to see Pi, but the journey is full of accidents and car repairs and winds up taking forty-one long hours. By the time Okamoto and Chiba reach Pi, they are exhausted. They set about interviewing Pi, in English. Martel provides us with the transcript of their conversation, which includes portions spoken by Okamoto and Chiba in Japanese and which Martel has had translated by a third party. The translated passages are presented to the reader in a different font from the rest of the interview transcript.
The interview begins. It is February 19, 1978. Chiba has turned on the tape recorder, so the entire conversation is on record. Okamoto introduces himself and Chiba, his assistant. Chiba is new at his job, and Okamoto tells him to pay attention and try to learn. Pi asks the two men if they had a nice trip coming down from California, and Okamoto says that they had a wonderful trip. Pi says he had a horrible trip. Prior to meeting Pi, Okamoto and Chiba saw the lifeboat. Now they offer Pi a cookie, which he gratefully accepts, and ask him to tell his story. Chapter 97 consists of two words only: “The story.” Okamoto and Chiba tell Pi that they find his story very interesting, but in Japanese they express their disbelief. Pi asks for another cookie—he has taken to storing cookies beneath his bed sheet. Okamoto decides to take a break and tells Pi they will be right back.
When the two men return, they tell Pi that they do not believe his story. For example, they say, bananas do not float. Pi pulls two bananas out from under his bed sheet and asks the men to test them in the room’s sink. Okamoto fills the sink and tests the bananas; they float. Okamoto continues grilling Pi, telling him that many aspects of his story are impossible and contradict the laws of nature. Chiba pipes up and says that his uncle is a bonsai master, and Pi cleverly states that bonsai trees—“Three-hundred-year-old trees that are two feet tall that you can carry in your arms”—must not exist because they are botanically impossible. Okamoto says there has been no trace of Richard Parker in or around Tomatlán. Pi explains that wild creatures are adept at hiding from humans, even in cities.
Pi asks the two men if they disliked his story. Okamoto replies that they enjoyed it, but that they need to know what really happened. Pi says he will tell another story. In this story, the four occupants of the lifeboat are Pi, his mother, the cook (an ill-tempered, greedy French man), and a sailor (a beautiful young Chinese boy). The sailor had broken his leg jumping into the lifeboat, and the cook cuts the leg off and tries to use it for bait. The sailor dies and the cook butchers and eats him. Pi and his mother, both horrified, try to stop him. The cook kills Pi’s mother and throws her head in Pi’s direction. Soon after, Pi fights the cook and kills him. He eats his heart and liver and pieces of his flesh. Then, as Pi says to Okamoto and Chiba, “Solitude began. I turned to God. I survived.”
Okamoto and Chiba are appalled but notice all the parallels between the characters and actions of this second story and the first story. They ask more technical questions, but Pi can tell them nothing to help solve the mystery of the Tsimtsum’s sinking. Pi asks them which story they preferred: the one with animals or the one without. Both Chiba and Okamoto agree that the one with animals is “the better story.” In his report, which years later he sends to Martel, Okamoto writes that Pi’s story of survival at sea with an adult Bengal tiger is astonishing and unique.
In the course of thirty pages, the sad tale we have been reading takes on a new and even more tragic layer of meaning when Pi reveals another version, one in which the animals are replaced by humans. Once we learn this, we immediately assume that Pi has probably made up the animal version as a way to cope with extreme tragedy. The beautiful, noble zebra represents the exotic Chinese sailor. The gutless, violent, ugly hyena embodies all the revolting qualities of the greedy, cowardly cook. The maternal orangutan, with her vaguely human body and mannerisms, represents Pi’s own mother. And the tiger is Pi himself, alternately vicious, passive, watchful, ravenous, self-contained, tamed, and feral. Both versions of the story—with and without animals—are viable, and Pi never tells us definitively which tale is true. Still, Pi seems to confess in these last chapters that he has made up his entire story as a way to cope with a shocking series of events. Only storytelling has the power to rescue him and deliver him from the absolute depths of despair.