On Pi, Richard Parker, and Don Quixote

I am reading “The Life of Pi” (Martell) again, and I am again troubled by the dueling stories offered by Pi to the Japanese insurance investigators. Most anyone who has read the novel gets a pie (Pi?) in the face toward the end of the novel when Pi offers up an alternative story/explanation to his time at sea, adrift, in a life boat. His alternative story involving his mother and a couple errant crewmen is a shocking reversal to his story about the tiger Richard Parker and their solitary days adrift at sea. The insurance investigators are mesmerized by Pi’s story of survival, danger, and fear, but they are also incredulous, and could not believe Pi’s wild story of shipwreck and survival in a lifeboat with a full-grown Bengal tiger. After they question his story–no tiger to be seen anywhere–Pi tells an alternative version that does not involve a tiger, but his alternate version is violent, tragic, grisly, sad, and mundane, lacking the verve and imagination of the same story involving Richard Parker, the tiger. The insurance investigators, who by their very nature must be cynics, are only looking for the facts, and an imaginative and unbelievable story involving a non-existent (at least from their point of view) tiger will not help them settle a multimillion dollar claim on the lost ship. They are pragmatists. They want an explanation they can sell to others. The problem is that Pi tells two stories, one, about how he tames a tiger and rides out a long shipwreck narrative at sea, the other story, the short version, is about how Pi might have witnessed the murder of his mother while he himself might have murdered others in order to survive. During my first reading experience with Pi and Richard Parker, I opted to believe the strange story that Pi narrates about his life in India, the crossing on the ship, the shipwreck, the lifeboat, and Richard Parker. The story is elaborate and unusual, but it chronicles a fight for survival, the ability to adapt to changing circumstance, courage and the unwillingness to just give up in the face of horrible odds. Pi works to train the tiger, fight off boredom and fear, fishes, collects fresh water, does everything in his power to survive. He makes a heroes journey from the depths of despair to the top of Olympus when he and Richard Parker finally come ashore in Mexico. This is a story about the strength of the human heart, about human ingenuity, about loving life, about surviving in the face of enormous odds. Pi’s story about his interactions with a Bengal tiger seems highly improbable given the killer nature of a hungry predator. In fact, Pi’s story is so improbable that it seems impossible, but there is a huge distance between improbable and impossible. Perhaps believing in one story or the other is a question of what Cervantes called “verisimilitude” in a narration. The Spaniard felt that although readers had to suspend their disbelief while reading a novel, a writer must also give his readers a place to “hang their hats,” so to speak–that the story had to have its feet on the ground at some point to be believable. If you are writing about a crazy guy who thinks he’s a knight, plays with horses and swords, you must first make him a regular guy who people might meet in the street on any given day, so before you invent Don Quixote, you must first invent Alonso Quijano, the Good. I believe Jan Martell is playing on the ground between fantasy and verisimilitude, walking a thin line between what is possible and improbable and impossible and fantastic. Martell rocks the narrative boat by offering a very real alternative that lacks any sort of improbable elements–no tiger, no fantasy, handing readers a problem: which narrative do they choose to believe.