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Piscine Molitor Patel, the protagonist of Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel Life of Pi, survives a horrific 227-day ordeal trapped aboard a directionless lifeboat with only a 450-pound Bengal Tiger, named Richard Parker, for company. Pi’s account of his misfortune spans the majority of the work, and it takes him hours to recount it to the Japanese investigators at the novel’s conclusion. His description is so vivid, so extensive, and so detailed that it would seem, despite its admittedly outlandish elements, deeply founded in actual events. Indeed, to fabricate something of such intensity would be unthinkable—and this is in fact the case. Pi almost unthinkingly constructs a fantasy alternative to the appalling truth of his experience in order to shield his psyche from the truly dreadful circumstances of his survival. Pi alters the actuality of his time on the lifeboat in such an unwitting manner as to be able to believe this figment of his imagination without hesitation, insistent on the truthfulness of his original account. It is only after a “Long silence” that Pi is able to bear witness to the actual facts regarding his experiences on the lifeboat (381). Author Joan Didion suggests that we must “tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This statement bears a special significance to Pi’s situation on the lifeboat, and his subsequent subconscious confusion between the story of cannibalism, butchery and murder that rang true, and his more pleasing, fantastical construct in which all of the negative elements of the true account are projected onto a tactless wild animal. Didion would argue that this “story”, including the array of wild animals accompanying Pi on his drift across the Pacific, is merely the one he tells himself in order to live, and in order to protect himself from going entirely mad.
Pi’s survival on the lifeboat, beginning July 2nd 1977 and not ending for some 227 days, continues due only to the absolute ruthlessness with which his fellow survivor, the Frenchman, conducts himself. In addition to the Frenchman, Pi’s mother and a badly injured Chinese sailor are also aboard the lifeboat at first (382). Immediately identifying the sailor as a weakness, the Frenchman quickly maneuvers Pi and his mother into “helping” the sailor by aiding the Frenchman in amputating the sailor’s leg (383). Immediately after this, however, we learn the Frenchman has done so only in order to secure bait for his fishing lines (384). Over the course of the ordeal, Pi witnesses increasingly horrid acts of inhumanity, all in the name of survival: the Frenchman promptly butchers the sailor’s body once he dies, including “pull[ing] off his face” (387). When fishing proves not immediately successful, the Frenchman begins to eat the sailor’s corpse: “‘Tastes like pork,’ he muttered” (388). As the situation onboard deteriorates, the cook resorts to murder to feed himself:
“They were fighting. I did nothing but watch. My mother was fighting an adult man. He was mean and muscular. He caught her by the wrist and twisted it. She shrieked and fell. He moved over her. The knife appeared. He raised it in the air. It came down. Next it was up—it was red. It went up and down repeatedly. I couldn’t see her. She was at the bottom of the boat. I saw only him. He stopped. He raised his head and looked at me. He hurled something my way. A line of blood struck me across the face. No whip could have inflicted a more painful lash. I held my mother’s head in my hands… He appeared when he threw my mother’s body overboard. His mouth was red.” (389-390)
The cook’s depravity and the unimaginably macabre concept of holding one’s own mother’s decapitated head would doubtless have far-reaching effects on a developing child’s mental state. As scarring as that could be, however, it could only be compounded by subsequent murder and cannibalism—“I stabbed him in the throat, next to the Adam’s apple. He dropped like a stone… His heart was a struggle—all those tubes that connected it. I managed to get it out. It tasted delicious” (391). This cataclysm of psychologically devastating occurrences would no doubt cause irreversible damage to anyone forced to face them without some sort of coping mechanism. Pi, as we see, develops a very effective mechanism of his own.
“We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices” states Didion. This is directly applicable to Pi’s situation. He sees, of course, the grisly events on the lifeboat committed not only by the Frenchman, but also by himself. Despite this seemingly immovable pillar of fact, Pi “interprets” what he sees into a more palatable form, one that gilds over the scenes of desperation and human depravity he witnesses. He refuses to accept the actual circumstances of his survival, and instead fabricates an alternate reality he steps into whenever the truth becomes too unbearable. He replaces the people around him with things familiar to him; in his case, these are wild animals from his father’s zoo in India. The similarities between the two stories Pi tells have inescapable parallels: with himself playing the role of Richard Parker, a crippled zebra in place of the Chinese sailor with the broken leg, Orange Juice the orangutan in place of his mother, and the French cook doing double duty as both the hyena and himself. Pi relays his fantasy with such striking imagery and unhesitating confidence that it seems entirely plausible: the wicked cook cuts off the sailor’s leg, using it as fishing bait, but later consumes the entire sailor, much as the hyena did with the crippled zebra. Later, the Frenchman also kills Pi’s mother, just as the hyena killed Orange Juice. In the end, Pi ends up killing the Frenchman, just as Richard Parker had dispatched both the hyena and the Frenchman. These parallels between the two stories are very apparent, and this fact brings additional credence to Didion’s statement. Pi “select[s] the most workable of the multiple choices” of stories, preferring the one which he creates for himself as a safe haven against the mental torment of the human depredation around him. This subconscious disconnect from reality is likely what preserved Pi’s sanity, or at least some of it, during the tumultuous 227 days he was at sea. By choosing the “most workable choice,” Pi manages to survive his ordeal with his psyche intact.
Indeed, Joan Didion’s assertion that we must “tell ourselves stories in order to live” is perfectly demonstrated by the protagonist in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Without existing within a wholly fabricated story of his own creation, Pi Patel could have in no way survived the immense mental and physical hardships that beset him at sea. Either from madness or by suicide, Pi would have certainly perished had he been forced to accept the events that occurred at face value. The unbelievably tortuous experiences of watching a man be butchered for fishing bait, of watching one’s mother murdered, decapitated, and feasted upon, of oneself committing murder, would be impossible to overcome without some sort of psychological aid; Pi’s fanciful story of orangutans, carnivorous islands, and Bengal tigers become this aid. It acts as a sort of security blanket, something to retreat into when difficulty arises. The fact that it takes Pi some time to recall the actual events onboard the lifeboat point to how thoroughly he has espoused this construct of his. To have retreated so fully into his world of fantasy, Pi must certainly have subconsciously recognized the danger to his psychological state that such grisly occurrences posed. He truly had to tell himself this “story” in order to live.
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