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  • Feeding Tiger, Finding GodScience, Religion, and "the Better Story" in Life of Pi
  • Gregory Stephens (bio)

Yann Martel's Life of Pi is an allegorical castaway story about a sixteen-year-old Indian polytheist who survives 227 days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Martel frames this postmodern variant on the Noah's ark tale as "a story that will make you believe in God" (viii). But these words are neither Martel's, nor those of the semifictional "Martel-like" narrator one encounters in the "Author's Note" (Innes 25). Rather, they are voiced by Mr. Adirubasamy, an elderly Indian man whom the Canadian quasi-author meets at a coffee house in Pondicherry. The virtual author, like the real Martel, is the author of two failed books, and looking for a capital-S "Story."1 Yet after tracking down the primary narrator of the novel (Pi Patel) in Toronto, reading his diaries of his Pacific Ocean ordeal, and listening to taped interviews with Pi, the quasi-author agreed with Mr. Adirubasamy that "this was, indeed, a story to make you believe in God" (x).

That apparently "evangelical premise" could awaken resistance among readers who take this "explicit but deceptive statement" too literally (Ishmael). As one reviewer notes, "Martel's statement is likely to have the opposite effect on his reader, provoking a determined counter-reaction not to succumb to a didactic religious agenda."2 Although the novel has its didactic moments, most reviewers seem to have taken a measured view of the author's "religious agenda." In interviews, Martel notes that he comes from a secular background in Quebec. There are no indications that writing this book represented a Damascus conversion experience for him. Life of Pi is not a conversion narrative perse, but it is in part an ascent narrative (a journey toward enlightenment) that also contains elements of descent narratives.3 As a secular writer with sympathies for the religious imagination, Martel can pitch his revisioning of comparative religion to readers who have what Salman Rushdie once called a "God-shaped hole" in their heart.4 These "implied readers" (Iser) would have a hunger for some of the animating power of faith, if not a capacity for blind commitment to dogmatic faith itself.

Reviewing Life of Pi for the Nation, Charlotte Innes describes it as "a religious book that makes sense to a nonreligious person" (25). In similar fashion, the Pequod argues that Martel's book "achieves something more quietly spectacular" than a literal conversion, or a restoring of one's faith in God: "it makes the reader want to believe in God. Martel gives the reader the democratic choice: the desire to believe rather than the belief itself" (Ishmael).

Those responses of the secular left contrast sharply with the responses of my first-year students at the University of the West Indies, to whom I have twice taught Life of Pi. For students from a fundamentalist background, it is a challenge to buy into a narrative [End Page 41] that proclaims a God that transcends the imaginations of most believers in the three faiths in which the young Pi has been trained (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam). In analyzing the theme of finding God, I position the text at a midway point between two different kinds of reception: secular readers for whom the notion of religious belief is at best metaphorical, and religious readers who may resist the narrative's conceit that the true God exists outside the confines of institutional religion.

Life of Pi is suffused by a pervasive liminality.5 The teenaged Pi is in motion between continents, between faiths, and between childhood and adulthood, which means that the novel is also a bildungsroman.6 I here focus above all on the text's and Pi's location in the contested space between believers and nonbelievers, and on the novel's attempted mediation between those seeming binary opposites. I ask two perhaps paradoxical questions: In what ways would this be seen by the nonreligious as a religious book with appeal? Put differently, to what degree and in what ways might this text actually give secular readers a desire to believe, even if it does...