If there has ever been a fictional poster child for the benefits of constructivism and narrative therapy, Pi would have to be it. Pi not only uses his multi-layered story as a way of easily avoiding traumatic memories but also uses it to deal with traumatic events as they happen. As Pi survives on the raft, he simultaneously creates and lives in his animal-filled reality.
Pi connects his tale to objectivity for the reader through his diary. It is not till Chapter 73 that he mentions it, but because it is the only log of the story as it happened, it is perhaps the most informative artifact of the raft. Interestingly, Pi tells the reader what he wrote in his diary, saying, “I talked about what you might expect: about things that happened and how I felt, about what I caught and what I didn’t, about seas and weather, about problems and solutions, about Richard Parker. All very practical stuff” (208). Upon the first reading, this passage seems understated but not particularly noteworthy. With a tiger on a boat, it would be troubling if Pi did not write about it. Knowing the ending, though, raises some questions about this passage. If the story with Richard Parker is not the story that factually happened in reality, then what can be made of Pi describing his diary? The reader has three separate choices. First, the reader may begin to accuse Pi of trickery. This choice is not unwarranted. Pi, at times, is extremely mischievous to his audience. However, this choice seems unlikely when the diary passage is taken within the context of the larger story. It would be absurd for Pi to share his life-changing story just to trick his audience.
Second, the reader may believe that Pi has simply subconsciously misremembered what he wrote in his diary in an attempt to repress trauma. This choice is more consistent with the bulk of the novel. It could be that Pi is an unreliable narrator because of psychosis. However, Pi gives his audience actual entries from his diary. One reads: “Prostrate body and soul. Will die soon. R. P. breathing but not moving. Will die too. Will not kill me” (239). How can one explain Pi’s mention of Richard Parker in his diary if Richard Parker is a creation of his subconscious with the purpose of aiding Pi in the retelling of the story?
The third option is that Pi creates Richard Parker while on the raft. If understood in this way, Pi’s relationship with the animals becomes multidimensional. As the only rational thinking being on the raft, he becomes the master of his story. It is also no wonder Pi feels he must keep Richard Parker alive. Richard Parker is not just a stand-in for Pi; he is also Pi’s link to sanity and (in a very Jungian sense) his animus. Thus, Pi renarrates his story to himself as it is happening, empowering him to make difficult decisions and, ultimately, to survive.
Before I forget I want to say a couple of words about Pi’s relationship with his audience. Dr. Bianco brought this up when I met with him last, and I wanted to make sure I got some ideas down about it. The thoughts haven’t fermented yet, so I want to just post some sporadic thoughts.
First, Pi, unlike the other narrators I’m going to be considering, seems to acknowledge the presence of his audience. Partly, this is because the frame for the book is Pi telling his story to a writer. But I think it’s more than that. Pi sets up his story in a very specific way to tell a very specific tale. This is why we get mini chapters about agnosticism. This is why we get admissions from Pi that he doesn’t “quite mean it literally” that he saw the Virgin Mary (63). He’s recognizing the skeptical reader. This is important because it sets up a trust with the reader that sets up the surprise ending. Without Pi drawing us into his narrative and his perception, the ending is not nearly as effective.
Second, Pi has a habit of communing with his audience. He continually makes dinner for the fictionalized Martel. Also, when he tells his story to the Japanese men, a very complicated thing happens with cookies. Throughout the interview, he asks them for cookies. But he doesn’t eat them. In fact, one of the men notes that “they’re right there beneath his bedsheet” (292). Pi saves them so that he can offer them to the Japanese men before they leave. This behavior is extremely curious, but it does two things. First, it offers Pi a way to commune with the men. Second, it leaves them thankful for things they already had in a way they weren’t before. I’m not sure what to make of this last one just yet.
Part of the mystical quality surrounding Life of Pi is Pi’s ability to claim one part of a dichotomy for the other. Reality becomes a part of myth, for instance, rather than its opposite. Many of these conflations deal directly with agency and communion. Pi’s treatment of religion exemplifies this tension. Religion, for most, is communal. It brings people together and connects them to something bigger than themselves. Agency is usually set up in opposition to these sorts of concepts. Pi, however, thwarts this binary. For him, religion is a tool and is, in that way, a very agentic sort of thing.
While religion is very important to Pi in the first part of the novel, it is forced to the background while he is on the lifeboat so that themes of survival and struggle can take its place. Chapter 74, however, deals with religion in the foreground. For this reason, it is illustrative of Pi’s raw feelings on religion. “I practised religious rituals that I adapted to the circumstances,” Pi says (208). The word “adapted” is a strong one, implying that Pi has ownership of the rituals. Pi inverts the typical understanding of religion. Religion, typically understood, is bigger than man and so therefore connects man to things beyond himself. For Pi, though, religion is man-made and perhaps smaller than man but is just as important. Pi would probably argue that it is more important in this adaptable way. Once religion has been taken down from its pedestal, it becomes even more meaningful to people because it meets them where they are. They are able to adapt it for their own lives and situations. Thus, through an agentic act (adaptation), Pi makes a communal thing (religion) even more communal.