Pi, Spirituality and Cannibalism on the
Stranded in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger, 16-year-old Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel draws upon his religious eclecticism—he is Hindu, Christian and Muslim—to maintain the faith and focus necessary for survival. But Pi’s story does not take a straightforward path. The basis for the Oscar-winning film, Yann Martel’s book evokes Dante Alighieri, Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Allan Poe, while examining how good and evil operate under extreme conditions.
Canadian author Yann Martel has named Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy his favorite literary work and the “single most impressive book” he has ever read. Martel pays tribute to this epic poem in two of his books, Life of Pi and the Holocaust allegory Beatrice and Virgil (2010). In a 2010 interview Martel explained the significance of the latter title, named after Dante’s famous guides (Dante’s muse Beatrice takes the pilgrim to heaven, while Roman poet Virgil escorts him through the underworld and purgatory): “In The Divine Comedy, Dante has lost his way,” he said. “He wants to come back to the straight way.… I use those names in my novel because in a sense when you look at the Holocaust, you need those guides.”
Martel’s tribute to The Divine Comedy in Life of Pi is more subtle. Instead of specifically referring to it, he organizes his novel’s chapters in accordance with Dante’s format. The Divine Comedy is composed of three books and 100 cantos; Life of Pi has three parts and 100 chapters.
A Hindu by birth, Pi discovers Christianity and Islam at the age of 14. Soon he is regularly attending a Christian church, a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple. When he innocently asks his father for a Christian baptism and a Muslim prayer rug, his father tells him he cannot believe in both faiths. “Why can’t I be both?” asks Pi. “They’re separate religions! They have nothing in common,” says his father.
But Pi does not quibble over the differences. He wishes simply to love God because “all religions are true.” Assimilating aspects of Christianity and Islam, as well as his family’s Hinduism, he forms a unique spiritual understanding of the world that serves him well as his adventures unfold.
Life of Pi’s popularity may be due in part to its timing. Published on September 11, 2001, its message of religious harmony debuted on a day that many thought destroyed this prospect. When asked about his novel’s role in a post–September 11 world, Martel replied, “I don’t want to make great claims for my book, but it’s precisely works of art that will bridge differences created by fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden.”
For centuries scholars believed Roman Catholicism was the only religion that influenced Dante Alighieri’s imaginative depictions of hell, purgatory and heaven in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. But in 1919 Catholic priest Miguel Asín Palacios published Islam and the Divine Comedy, a study of the parallels between Dante’s epic and Islamic literature, specifically parts of the supplementary hadith texts—the acts and sayings of Muhammad, including accounts of the prophet’s dramatic “night journey”—works that, Asín Palacios asserts, Dante had access to in Europe.
Asín Palacios compares the two protagonists, noting that both Dante and Muhammad narrate their own adventures, journey by night, are led by a guide and begin their travels ascending a steep mountain. But these similarities only scratch the surface of Asín Palacios’ thesis. One of his larger points summarizes a scene from Muhammad’s visit to hell: “Proceeding on their way, Mahomet and his guide witness six scenes, one after another, of horrible torture. Men and women with lips torn asunder; others whose eyes and ears are pierced by arrows; women hanging by their heels while vipers sting their breasts.” The scene resembles the contrapasso (punishment of souls) from Inferno, the first book of the Comedy.
Stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days, Pi abandons his pious vegetarianism for a diet of fish and turtles. He describes his remorse after killing his first fish: “It was the first sentient being I had ever killed. I was now a killer.… I was sixteen years old, a harmless boy, bookish and religious, and now I had blood on my hands.”
Finally rescued, however, Pi relates an alternative version of his time at sea, in which his loss of innocence is dramatically more serious. This shocking retelling forces the reader to question what happens on the lifeboat, as well as Pi’s intentions as a narrator. In this alternative account—spoiler alert!—Pi is shipwrecked not with zoo animals but with his mother, a French cook and an injured Taiwanese sailor. They drift several weeks before the cook butchers Pi’s mother and the sailor and eats parts of their flesh. Left alone with the cook, Pi stabs him to death and eats his heart and liver. This final act of cannibalism highlights the duality of Pi’s nature: his physical weaknesses and his spiritual ideals. While steeped in the pursuit of the divine, Pi is still subject to the animal within.
In Inferno, the first book of The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri finds the medieval historical figure Count Ugolino frozen in ice in the ninth circle of hell, his jaws locked down on the skull of his enemy in life, Archbishop Ruggieri. He is condemned to gnaw thus for eternity. Ugolino tells Dante the story of his disgrace: Ruggieri, once a friend to the count, betrayed Ugolino and imprisoned him with his two sons and two grandsons. One morning he awoke to find the door to his cell nailed shut—a death sentence. In agony, the count began gnawing on his hands, whereupon his kin, seeing this, pleaded that he turn his hunger toward them: “Father, much less pain ’twill give us if thou do eat of us; thyself didst clothe us with this poor flesh, and do thou strip it off.” But Ugolino, overcome with grief, refused; and still, when the younger men died of starvation and Ugolino himself was dying, he resisted the temptation. But finally, after three days alone with the rotting corpses, he found that “hunger did what sorrow could not do.” Ugolino is known as the Cannibal Count.
Referencing a notorious nautical curse, Life of Pi author Yann Martel gives the unlucky name Richard Parker to the 450-pound Bengal tiger who shares Pi’s lifeboat. In fact, the name is so historically unlucky for sailors that it has become associated with maritime misfortune of all kinds: shipwreck, murder, cannibalism, drowning. The curse seems to have begun in 1884 in an instance of life imitating art. Martel explains his inspiration: “The choice of Richard Parker as the tiger’s name was no coincidence.… Richard Parker was a sailor boy who was killed and eaten by Captain Dudley and the other two survivors of the sinking of the Mignonette [in 1884]. Thirty or forty years earlier, Edgar Allan Poe published his one effort at a novel, an awful work entitled The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym.… In it, Pym and a friend set sail from Nantucket. Their boat overturns, and they survive several days on the hull with a third person.… Pym and Co. eat the third man. His name is Richard Parker. Remember, Poe wrote Pym forty years before the sinking of the Mignonette.”
The idea for Life of Pi came to Yann Martel after he read a review of Max and the Cats, a 1981 novella by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar. The novella tells the story of Max Schmidt, who ships out to Brazil when the Nazis occupy his native Germany. When his boat—which is transporting zoo animals—sinks, Max is stranded in a dinghy with a jaguar. Martel’s book begins with a similar premise: Sixteen-year-old Pi Patel, a boy whose family owns a zoo in India, boards a ship carrying zoo animals when his family relocates to Canada. When the ship sinks, Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a dangerous tiger.
“I remember thinking, man, that’s a brilliant premise,” Martel said in a 2002 interview with The Guardian, referring to his first encounter with Max and the Cats. Despite thanking Scliar in Life of Pi’s author’s note, calling him the “spark of life,” Martel was accused by critics of plagiarism. Scliar even threatened legal action, claiming Martel had used his idea “without consulting me or even informing me. An idea is intellectual property.” Scliar reportedly changed his mind after meeting with Martel.
Life of Pi and Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea have more in common than their watery setting. Both novels are about unconventional relationships between man and beast, bonds formed in the isolation of the open sea, apart from civilization. Both relationships are characterized by the protagonist’s conflicted attitude toward the beast, whom he alternately loves and fears. In Life of Pi, the tiger who rivals Pi for dominance on the small boat becomes his companion in mutual hunger, thirst and suffering, until at last Pi is saddened to lose him. Likewise, in The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago comes to an understanding with the giant fish he struggles to hook: “‘Fish,’ he said, ‘I love you and respect you very much but I will kill you dead before this day ends.’”
When asked about the comparison to Hemingway’s novel, Martel was somewhat indifferent: “People always seek to compare. They can take the new but only if it is somehow connected to the familiar…. But of course I’m flattered about the comparison with Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway is a great writer.”
Many readers and critics immediately recognized Santiago—the eponymous old man of Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novella—as a Christ-like figure. He has since been examined as a symbol of Christian virtues (such as patience, humility, self-sacrifice and hope), and his story as an allegory of the life of Jesus. Proponents of the latter view frequently point to three episodes from the book: As Santiago tries to hold on to his fishing line, his hands get torn and bloodied, as do Christ’s when they are nailed to the cross; as Santiago returns home from the docks, he struggles up a hill with his mast across his shoulders, falling down several times, as Christ does when he carries his cross; and when Santiago finally returns to his shack, he lies face down on his bed, “with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up,” as in a crucifixion.
One may also be tempted to interpret The Old Man and the Sea using Islamic symbolism, in which boats represent spiritual enlightenment.
Despite being baptized in the Episcopal Church, attending a school run by a reverend and learning the catechism of the Church of England as part of his curriculum, Edgar Allan Poe makes little reference to Christianity in his writing. The religion of Islam seemed to enchant him more as a writer, as evidenced in particular by “Al Aaraaf,” an 1829 poem based on stories from the Koran. One of Poe’s earliest poems, and by far his longest, it depicts the middle sphere of the afterlife in a place called Al Aaraaf.
Describing his Islamic-influenced poem, Poe painted an image that is also consistent with the limbo of Christian theology: “Its title is ‘Al Aaraaf,’ from the Al Aaraaf of the Arabians, a medium between Heaven and Hell where men suffer no punishment, but yet do not attain that tranquil & even happiness which they suppose to be the characteristics of heavenly enjoyment.”