Online Book Club: Discussion Summary - Life Of Pi By Yann Martel

Posted at 17:44pm on 16th October 2011

One of the great things about a Book Club, as I've said before, is that almost always there are aspects of the book we've read that strike people in different ways.   So while  all of us who met last Thursday confessed to feeling disappointed by the denouement of Life of Pi - the novel finished, we felt, with a whimper; a damp squib - most of us very much enjoyed the rest of what we'd read.  One member, however, most definitely did not!


It was not so much the plot that annoyed Dan, as the narrative.  Or at least, what he perceived behind it.  The author's objective, thought Dan, was to prove the "synchronicity" of faiths.  I believe that what Dan meant was not that Yann Martel's aim was to show that all faiths are concurrent, but that they might all be seen as equal.

This, of course, is a modern theme among the detractors of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.  It's certainly one that occurred and recurred in the novel, Life of Pi.  To start with, Pi embraces three different faiths, simultaneously. 

"'What is your son doing going to temple?' asked the priest," when he met Pi and his parents in the park.

"'Your son was seen in church crossing himself,' said the imam."

"'Your son has gone Muslim,' said the pandit."

Defending himself by pointing out that he wants only to love God, Pi goes on to speak of "Hindus, in their capacity for love, are...hairless Christians...Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus... and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims."  Later, talking of atheists as "my brothers and sisters of a different faith", he is putting his own faith in God on a par with those of no faith - or at least, those whose faith is in nothing.


What our Book Club member, Dan, identified, which caused us all to think again, was the way in which the author, Yann Martel, used humour to ridicule the concept of faith.  This, again, is a modern phenomenon.  Certainly since television invaded our homes in the middle of the 20th Century, comedy has been used in this way, and has become highly popular - even among Christians!  From the Vicar of Dibley, via Dave Allen and Father Ted, it is, probably, a more successful means of devaluing faith than any polemics put forward by the likes of Richard Dawkins.  And as Dan pointed out, most comedians are self-confessed atheists.

Naturally, parity of faiths was not a concept with which we, in the Book Club, could concur.  However, countering this trend, we all agreed, was a problem.


Whilst commenting on the zoo which his father runs in India, Pi observes that "We commonly say in the trade that the most dangerous animal in a zoo is Man.  In a general way we mean how our species' excessive predatoriness has made the entire planet our prey."

Living as we are, in the middle of a global economic crisis, the Book Club discussion moved on to the theme of greed.  Politicians persistently promote "growth" as the only means by which we might extricate ourselves from the mess we're in.  However, it seemed to me, and to others, that the growth of one part of the planet was almost certainly to the detriment of another.

True, we are constantly extracting new resources from the earth, as one Book Club member pointed out.  Nevertheless, these are finite.  Where once we lived in community - for King and country - we have now evolved into a nation steeped in individualism.  And having been bombarded with the principle enshrined in a certain TV advert, "because you're worth it," how easy it is for us to rationalise our latest want as a need.  Or worse, still, to convince ourselves - while children starve - that this is part of God's abundance for us.

Living *in* the world but not being *of* the world requires a fine balancing act, we agreed.


Which brought us neatly to the truth that the battle between good and evil is a very real one.  It is also, as Pi describes it, a very private thing.  It is not on the outside "the open ground of the public arena" that God needs defending, he observes, but in the "small clearing of each heart."  It is not to the defence of God that the "self-righteous" should rush, asserts Pi, but to the lot of "widows and homeless children."


When it came to Pi's notion that "time is an illusion", some of us in the Book Club found ourselves discussing a theme which had previously come up.  On the understanding that God lives outside of time - in eternity - it must be said that the salvation won by Jesus' death is eternal.  But does that mean that it stretches both forward in time, as well as back to the creation of the world, and beyond?

The Book Club discussion expanded to explore the dimensions of this idea.  Jesus, we agreed, was a historical figure whose death, as a human being, is fixed in time.  But Jesus, as the Godhead, lives in eternity, and as such his death and resurrection must be timeless.  He must, therefore, feel the pain of sin and death every moment, alongside the victory of his rising to new life.

Could we, in conclusion, say that just as those in Old Testament times must have been covered by the timelessness of salvation so, too, might those who have not yet heard of Christ?  It was, we agreed, a step too far in the direction of universalism.  And that - Rob Bell's book Love Wins - is the theme of a future Book Club meeting.  Until then - and most probably until we find ourselves in glory - the mysteries of God will remain the mysteries of men.


"Could anyone explain the significance of the floating island?" asked several Book Club members.

This was in reference to an island of algae on which Pi landed at some point during his eight month voyage on the Pacific.  Populated by meerkats, it emitted a man-eating acid by night.  It seemed, to most of us, to be a meaningless part of the middle story; a part that dragged on for too long, leaving the reader with the urge to give up or skip pages.

The only significance that I could find was in the following narrative:  "It was an awe-inspiring see giant waves charging the island, seemingly preparing to... unleash bedlam and chaos - only to see each one melt away... In this respect, the island was Gandhian: it resisted by not resisting."  What Pi concluded was that the potentially threatening waves passed harmlessly beneath the floating algae.

This, said Paddy, a member of the Book Club, was a principle of Zen: Flight or Fight.  I wasn't so sure.

I was reminded of an experience I had recently, in which I had resisted with all my might the destructive vocal powers of someone who opposed me.  Until, exhausted, and in prayer, I recalled the response made by Jesus.  When he had done all the explaining and exhorting that he could do, he was - silent.  Standing before Pilate, "when he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer.  Then Pilate asked him, 'Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?'  But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge - to the great amazement of the governor."

Thus Jesus resisted the powers of evil by not resisting.  He put his trust in God the Father.  This, surely, is one of the great principles of Christian-Judaic faith.  Perhaps, in these difficult times, it is one we would do well to adopt.

Click here for Book Review & Questions on Life of Pi for Book Club Leaders

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© Copyright Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION
Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies offers resources to inform inspire and encourage. This article, in its original form, can be found at

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