Ode to Richard Parker

A review of Life of Pi I simply had to write and share Awe.  Amazement.  Jaw-dropping insight.  Soul-jolting inspiration.  Glimpses of God.  This is not hyperbole.  Life of Pi, both movie and novel, brought me to my writer’s knees, humbling me is too kind, humiliating me as a novelist myself, more like it.  But a month since reading it and another month since seeing it, I’m still so captivated, I feel the need to write about it, and to pay homage.

Prepare to fall in love with a shipwrecked 16-year-old Indian boy, Pi from Pondicherry, cast adrift on a great ocean in a lifeboat he is forced to share with a ferocious Bengal tiger ironically named Richard Parker.  They compete and cooperate in a prolonged struggle to survive calamity, the elements, life, and each other.  That’s only the surface of a tale that deeply delves into the duality of life.  Warring pairs of opposites—life and death, good/evil, light/darkness, savagery/nurturing, competition/cooperation—are more than just inextricably linked aspects of living, they are the purpose of existence, physical and metaphysical.  One cannot exist without its opposite.

It’s a daunting theme, the purpose of existence, yet author Yann Martel explores another equally challenging one at the same time.  Story.  Stories.  What we believe.  How we talk to ourselves, how we see and understand the world and each other—or how we choose not to. 

Rarely does a movie, which by definition must vigorously prune and simplify the subplots and detail of the novel on which it’s based, inspire me to run-not-walk to the closest bookstore to purchase the original work.  But Ang Lee’s movie version of Life of Pi did exactly that.

Rarer yet is the deepening of my gratitude which followed the reading of Life of Pi, both for the novel and novelist and for the movie adaptation and direction.  The film captures the essence of these ephemeral themes while echoing the book’s profound beauty and soulfulness.  Both masterful versions left me breathless, literally gasping, at for example, the tiger’s savagery and his physical beauty, at Pi’s ingenuity but also his innocence, a purity. 

In one charming scene, Pi’s Hindu family sits around a dining table where Pi’s father lectures him on Pi’s penchant to embrace whatever religion passes before him, having practiced in addition to Hinduism the Muslim faith.  He must use his Rational Brain as Man was clearly meant to do, Pi’s father, a zoo keeper, asserts.  Pi glances around the table before hesitantly responding that, um, he now wishes to be baptized.

But should you not care for the man-and-tiger survival struggle told in one way on one level, there are infinite possibilities for interpretation of life’s universal truths, as Pi himself summarizes by saying, “And so it goes with God.” 

And remember, regardless of what versions, layers, or interpretations resonate personally, ‘Pi,’ the unending number 3.14…, no matter how far you carry it out, still can only approximate the relationships it attempts to describe.

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