In 2010/2011 I lived in Birmingham whilst my wife and I were both studying there. We were newly married, both studying for pretty costly postgraduate degrees. Consequently, there was little money left over each month for leisure activities, and so we both joined our local library. As if we didn’t already have enough reading to do! However, it was a charming experience altogether even if somewhat antiquated.
We visited the library sporadically often picking up several books per visit and subsequently failing to return them on time. It was during one visit that I happened upon Yann Martel’s book ‘The Life of Pi‘. I devoured the book. It was certainly the most compelling read of the year which is sad given that I spent the guts of £5,000 to read the other books as part of my postgraduate programme.
What follows could be considered a spoiler. So if you have not read the book or seen the movie and intend to so unfettered, read on with caution. I would note at this point that I loved both the movie and the book even though both were very different. The book captures perfectly for me the wonder of good story telling. It is creative, dynamic and personal. The movie is refreshingly cinematic. It deviates from the usual nonsense special effects and plunges the viewer into a world of beauty, delicacy and mystery.
Personally, the most interesting this about the book for me was the final few pages. After the protagonist Pi Patel recounts being stranded at sea for the best part of a year on a lifeboat with a full sized, untamed, Bengal Tiger to the insurance agents representing the sunken ship – they are simply refusant to believe his tails of being stuck at sea and surviving for so long under such challenging circumstances. They believe he is lying and cannot access the truth. Pi, perhaps partly realising the implausibility of his story, perhaps partly wearied by the utter refusal of the agents to believe his version of events, makes up an entirely different story. One that is much more believable under the circumstances. This story includes murder, cannibalism, barbarism, deep hatred and clear psychological abuse over many months. It sounds believable. However, neither story accounts for the sinking of the ship. Both give an account of Pi’s journey from life boat to dry land, but none account for why, how, where and when the ship actually sank in the first place. Both Pi and the agents acknowledge that information is lost. Therefore, neither of Pi’s stories believable or otherwise are helpful to the insurance agents who are merely interested in exploiting cold, hard evidence. They’re tangibly frustrated by what they perceive to be a time waste. Pi, however, notes that in both stories his family dies, his world is torn apart, and he suffers incredible pain and sadness. The agents concede that this is true. Finally Pi simply asks which story is the better story. The admit the one with the animals and excitement is the better story and that they can not prove which story is true. Later, Pi receives the official insurance report which reads as a fairly generic report until the last line ‘Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal Tiger’. The believed the better story. Either could have been true – but they believed the better story.
The concept of story has always gripped me. The poignancy with which this book approaches the subject is astounding to me. Pi Patel, an inconspicuous young man tells one ridiculous story and one believable story – both containing untold heartache and suffering, one told with passion and truth, the other with staleness and habit. It is easy in life to demand the more realistic and comfortable story and we can so often miss out on the chance to engage with greatness or even tell of greatness ourselves. Often opting for comfort and normalcy.
This book changed my impacted me in a number of ways. But, the ending always gets me – can I believe the better story? Can you believe the better story?