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
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 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.
Martel tweaks the traditional rendering of animals in children’s tales to strengthen Pi’s original story and to illustrate the similarities between humans and animals. Fables and children’s stories regularly make use of anthropomorphized animal characters. However, in Life of Pi, the animals are drawn realistically and behave in ways that are true to their species. In this way, Martel enables the protagonist, Pi, to make a strong case for the believability of his Richard Parker account—something that would not be possible if, for example, Richard Parker were a talking tiger or a tiger that magically turns, against his very nature, into Pi’s best friend. Furthermore, he drives home the point that we humans are not so different from animals after all. Deprived of the luxuries and conveniences we have built up for ourselves in modern times, we resort to our basic instincts and animalistic roots.
Part Three conveys the difficulty of communicating precisely and accurately. Pi tells two different stories about his time at sea. At the broadest level, this deception illustrates the ability and willingness of humans to embellish and alter the truth, to fill in forgotten details with fictions and lies. It also suggests the difficulty of arriving at a single objective truth, as opposed to differing interpretations of events. The smaller details, too, send the reader a message that it is extremely hard to use language precisely. A word is a signal or symbol used to point to things that exist in the world. Given that all of human language is metaphorical in this way, a person can never give an objective, unbiased, fact-based account. Even the tape-recorded conversation between Pi and the two interviewers is not entirely unbiased: the Japanese portions of the text are not original because they have been filtered through a third party, the translator. Okamoto’s final report, delivered to the Ministry of Transport, is also selective and subjective. Clearly, even in documents and journalistic accounts there seems to be a great deal of creative authorship involved. The bottom line, Martel seems to say, is that there can never be only one right account of a thing, event, person, place, or conversation. Experience is always open to interpretation.
Part Three provides the most important phrase of the novel: “the better story.” With those three words, we come to understand that this is a book about how we choose what to believe and how we come to grips with a reality that is often more horrible that we can stand. In other words, as Pi reveals to us and to his two interviewers, the human capacity for imagination and invention is a mechanism for self-preservation. Pi is conscious that he has two stories to offer us: one with animals and one without. He is also aware that the one with animals is the more enjoyable of the two, the version that we, his audience, would much rather remember. The story with the Bengal tiger is farfetched but engaging, even charming. The version with the cannibalistic cook and the death of Pi’s mother, on the other hand, is heartbreaking and extremely upsetting. It reveals the underlying ferocity of our animal nature, something that we humans do not like to know about ourselves.
If fiction is an escape hatch or a gentler version of the truth, then religion is a lifeboat that keeps us afloat in the face of our own mortality. Both fiction and religion perform a similar function. They take the simple biological imperatives—we are born, we live, we die—and color them with narrative in an effort to make them more palatable, more personal, more digestible. All religions provide believers with a creation story, rituals for daily life, and stories that illustrate, in an indirect way, the nature of human life. All fiction supplies us with characters, settings, and language that help us get closer and closer to grasping universal truths. The significance of religion within Martel’s novel is just like that of fiction: both use metaphor, simile, allusion, imagery, and hyperbole to help us understand and live with the realities of human existence.