The interviewers return and tell Pi that they don’t believe his story. As an example of its impossibility, they claim that bananas don’t float. Pi challenges this and pulls two bananas from under his bedsheet for them to test. Okamoto fills the sink and puts the bananas in, and they do float. Okamoto responds to this by challenging the existence of the algae island.
The interviewers start by nitpicking at details, which leads to some humorous scenes and Pi defending his story in its every aspect. Eventually they get around to the larger idea here, which is about learning to process and improve an unbearable reality through storytelling.
Pi says that they don’t believe in the island just because they haven’t seen it, but Okamoto claims that it is “botanically impossible.” Chiba interrupts that he has an uncle who is a botanist and bonsai master. Pi says that bonsai trees, “three-hundred-year-old trees that are two feet tall that you can carry in your arms,” also must be fictional because they too seem botanically impossible.
Pi cleverly turns Okamoto’s criticism against him, and the inexperienced Chiba unwittingly helps Pi along. In his defense Pi now starts to refer to his story in a manner similar to a religious believer, defending the “unseen” against arguments of reason.
Okamoto moves on, challenging Pi about Richard Parker. He says that no one has spotted a tiger in the area lately. Pi mentions the panther that escaped the Zurich Zoo. Okamoto says how unlikely it would be that Pi could have survived so long with such an “incredibly dangerous wild animal.”
We now see that Pi’s digressions and musings of Part One have not only foreshadowed his training of Richard Parker, but also acted as supports and precedents for the believability of his animal story.
Pi responds that animals are just as afraid of humans as we are of them. He gives more examples of wild animals living undetected in big cities, and says that the idea of finding a tiger in a jungle is laughable. Pi then questions the interviewers – he asks them how they live if they demand “believability” of everything. He asks if they believe in love or in God, as these things also seem improbable.
Pi repeats his phrasing from Part One almost exactly in describing the “laughability” of finding a tiger in a Mexican jungle, when so many wild animals effectively hide in big cities. Pi now expands his survival story to become a more obvious metaphor for religious faith and the power of fiction.
Chiba becomes distracted by Pi’s responses and Okamoto berates him in Japanese, asking him to help with the situation. The officials finally give up challenging Pi’s story and return to their real directive, which is finding out why the Tsimtsum sank.
The ship’s details seem unimportant to the story, but their very unimportance contributes to the religious metaphor – Pi’s journey as a castaway is not professionally important to the officials, so they must make a personal decision in believing or disbelieving his story.
Pi is unwilling to give up discussing his story, however, so Okamoto asks him about the blind Frenchman he met. Okamoto says that the cook aboard the Tsimtsum was also French. Pi asks the interviewers to explain the meerkat bones in the lifeboat, but the officials say that the bones are unidentifiable. They return to questions about the ship, and Pi reminds them that he lost his whole family in the shipwreck.
The reader has been totally invested in Pi’s narrative up to this point, but now its implausibility suddenly becomes very likely. The meerkat bones are unidentifiable and Pi cleaned out the rest of the remains, so the truth about Pi’s ordeal is basically unknowable and unprovable – just like the existence of God.
The officials are embarrassed by this, and Pi offers them cookies. He then asks them if they liked his story. The officials say that they did like it and that they will remember it for a long time, but they want to know what really happened. Pi offers to tell them “another story.” The officials ask him for facts, not a story, but Pi replies that life itself is always a story. He finally agrees to tell a believable story, to give in to “dry, yeastless factuality” and tell a story without exotic animals in it.
This scene condenses many of the novel’s themes and is a kind of thesis statement for Martel. The officials admit that the animal story is more beautiful and compelling, but they are still wedded to “factuality.” Pi states Martel’s idea that true reality is inherently impossible to communicate, so any kind of “truth-telling” is in fact a story of some kind. The officials, like Pi’s agnostics, just want a story that they can pretend is totally practical and true.
Pi pauses for a while and then begins a new account of his experience. In this second story, the four survivors on the lifeboat are Pi, his mother (who floated to safety on some bananas), the French cook, and a Chinese sailor. Pi describes the cook as greedy and cruel, and says that he immediately ate all the flies and the one rat on the boat. The sailor was young, exotic, and beautiful, but he spoke only Chinese and had broken his leg jumping into the lifeboat.
We are suddenly pulled out of the world we had been sucked into and invested in – the lifeboat of animals – and made to question the truth of Pi’s story. Of course the whole novel is fiction, but within that fiction we as readers like to trust the story we are reading and temporarily accept it as reality, or at least as a vehicle of some emotional or aesthetic truth. The sudden unreliability of that truth then creates a very interesting effect, which Martel exploits.
Pi’s mother tended to the wounded sailor but his broken leg got worse, growing black and bloated. The cook eventually convinced the others that they had to cut off the sailor’s leg to save his life. They held down the sailor while the cook sawed off the leg. The sailor remained calm and quiet throughout it all, and clung to life even after the ordeal.
This second story does indeed seem more believable, but Pi acts like he is making it up in the same way that he (possibly) did the first story. In this “human story,” Pi’s mother corresponds with Orange Juice, the sailor with the zebra, and the cook with the hyena.
The next day Pi went to throw the severed leg overboard, but the cook stopped him. He said the leg was for bait, and that “that was the whole point.” At this Pi’s mother realized that the cook tricked them into cutting off the sailor’s leg. The cook looked guilty but said that they needed food.
Pi’s animal story remains believable because the animals in it did not act as anthropomorphized beasts, but as real wild animals might act in such a situation. The hyena seemed cruel, but in the reality of the animal story it was just obeying its instincts.
Pi’s mother screamed at the cook and then discovered that he had been stealing rations. Pi admitted that he ate some of the food too when the cook offered it to him. Pi’s mother turned away from him and Pi apologized, weeping. Two weeks had passed by that point.
The whole of the human story is only the first part of the animal story, implying that the rest of Pi’s ordeal (after the cook’s death) might have consisted of the hallucinatory processing of horrible reality and the creation of a “better story,” perhaps as a means of survival in his isolation.
The sailor died peacefully and the cook immediately butchered him, despite Pi’s mother’s protests. The cook used some of the flesh as bait and ate the rest. After that the cook occupied one end of the lifeboat and Pi and his mother occupied the other. They couldn’t ignore the cook, though, as he was the best at fishing and surviving. Pi and his mother refused to eat any of the sailor’s flesh, but they did eat the fish the cook caught, overcoming their vegetarianism.
In this human story Pi himself is also less resourceful and strong. Pi steals rations that the cook offers him, and it is the cook who has all the good ideas about surviving, doing most of the fishing and work on the lifeboat. In both stories Pi has to give up his vegetarianism, but compared to his other sacrifices this is a small price to pay to survive. There is still a kind of territory division on the lifeboat even in the human version.
After a while Pi and his mother grew more friendly with the cook, as he helped them to survive. One day when they were all weak with hunger they tried to bring a turtle aboard and lost it because of Pi. The cook hit Pi, and Pi’s mother hit the cook. She pushed Pi towards the raft and he jumped overboard. The two adults started to fight, and the cook killed Pi’s mother with a knife as Pi watched from the raft. The cook cut off her head and threw it to Pi.
Orange Juice’s death becomes all the more tragic in retrospect, and the human story is now far more horrible than the animal version, which is interesting as the humans are acting not so differently from the animals. Again Pi is a weak link on the lifeboat instead of the resourceful, adaptable “alpha” he was in the animal story.
The cook butchered Pi’s mother and ate some of her flesh. Pi stayed on the raft for a day and a night, and neither he nor the cook spoke. Then Pi climbed aboard the lifeboat. The cook silently gave him a turtle to eat, and then Pi fought with the cook and killed him with the knife. Pi says that the cook seemed to give up, as he recognized that he had crossed a line, “even by his bestial standards.”
This is the moment when Richard Parker appeared in the animal story, revealing himself as the violent side of Pi’s soul that will do anything to survive. If the human story is the “true” one, then Pi dealt with the murder and cannibalism he committed by creating the alternate personality of the tiger, setting up a boundary within his soul to let the “Pi” part remain sane and human.
Pi cut up the cook and ate his heart, liver, and pieces of his flesh. He says the heart was delicious. Pi says that the cook was an evil man, but he met with evil in Pi himself. Of the rest of his journey Pi only says “Solitude began. I turned to God. I survived.” There is a long silence, and Pi asks the officials if this second story is better and more believable.
Pi describes these horrors in an almost detached way, which seems to imply either that he is making up this human story or has decided to put all his faith in the animal story as a way of remaining sane. He explains the majority of the animal story – the time after the hyena’s death – with just these three short phrases.
Okamoto and Chiba are horrified by this story, but they note the parallels between Pi’s two tales – the zebra corresponds with the Chinese sailor, the hyena with the cook, Orange Juice with Pi’s mother, and Richard Parker with Pi himself. Chiba asks Okamoto about the meerkats and the algae island, but Okamoto only says that he doesn’t know what to think.
The officials (or Okamoto at least) now seem to recognize that this is no ordinary interview, but in fact a test of their own faith and beliefs about life. As readers, we are just as shocked as the interviewers are by this alternate account.
The officials ask Pi some technical questions about the nature of the Tsimtsum’s sinking. Pi says that the crew was unfriendly and often drunk, but he can give little information to solve the mystery of the disaster. In the end the officials give up, recognizing that the truth is lost forever.
While they are processing these stories the officials turn to their actual assignment, which is finding out why the Tsimtsum sank. They conclude that the reason for its sinking is unknowable (just like the existence of God, and therefore God’s contraction in order to create the world), so the truth of Pi’s stories (and his self-discovery through his journey, his self-creation) becomes a personal matter now, and no longer part of their job.
Before the officials leave Pi asks them which of his two stories they preferred. He reminds them that neither story explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum, and neither really matters for the officials’ business. Okamoto and Chiba both agree that the animal story is the “better story.” Pi responds with “And so it goes with God,” and then he starts to cry. The officials thank Pi and wish him well, promising to look out for Richard Parker on their drive. Pi gives them some cookies and the interview ends.
This final scene is the climax of the novel’s themes, as Pi fully draws the parallel between his survival stories and his religious faith. Martel leaves it unclear which of Pi’s accounts is the factual truth, but he comes down clearly on the side of storytelling as its own truth – the animal story is moving, challenging, and memorable, while the human story inspires only horror, so whatever the “dry, yeastless factuality” is, the animal story is “the better story.” And for Pi, a universe with God in it is a better universe, no matter what the unknowable facts are.