Fierce companion

Constant. Infinite. Irrational. Transcendental. What does this combination of qualities evoke in your mind? An account of the divine, perhaps? The story of a perfect love? The mystical state of undifferentiated oneness with the universe?

If I were to tell you that what I have in mind is a commonplace relationship we have all encountered, what would you think? And what if I were to tell you it’s also a number?

The fact is, this is a column about all of those things—and about a letter, too—the number from geometry we have for centuries expressed by a Greek letter (π) and called by a Latin name: pi. As we all learned very early on in school, pi represents the ratio that exists between the circumference and the diameter of a circle—a number that is irrational and infinite because its decimal representation never ends, incalculable because its sequence of numbers never repeats a pattern, transcendental because it is not the root of any nonzero polynomial having rational coefficients. (That last one I had to look up.)

I haven’t mentioned the word “ubiquitous” yet, but π is not only infinite, it’s everywhere—silently inscribed in the dimensions of any circle or ellipse we encounter. As it happens, mathematicians have set out across millennia to deepen our understanding of π. Innumerable (ahem) dissertations and books and articles have been dedicated to the subject. In 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives declared March 14 Pi Day, to celebrate its mysteries and amazing properties. And now there is an award-winning novel and Academy Award-winning movie with the title Life of Pi.

Which is what got me thinking about this inscrutable calculation. First, I loved the plot of the book—for all kinds of reasons, but in part because it is a story about how essential the act of telling stories is to being human (and I am a literary guy by trade), to being alive, to finding our place in the world, defining an identity. The book introduces us to a novelist who is looking for a good story to tell, since the novel he had planned to write didn’t work out. He gets a tip about a man who has a great story and decides to interview him. The man’s name is Pi. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) This individual from Pondicherry, in India, had been given the name Piscine, after a particular swimming pool in Paris (Piscine Molitor), where his father’s good friend loved to swim. But when young Piscine’s schoolmates persisted in referring to him as “Pissing,” he shortened his name to “Pi,” with a long “i,” bringing with it all the dignity and elevation of the great mathematical concept.

The name fit Pi for a lot of reasons. Or, more to the point, Pi came to fit his name. Early on, it seems, he took a profound interest in the infinite and transcendental. Living in a secular Hindu family, he became a devout Hindu himself, mesmerized by Krishna and Vishnu and the cycles of the universe. His encounters with Christianity and Islam, respectively, affected him just as deeply, and he became enthralled with their stories of incarnation and sacrifice, redemption and salvation—managing to somehow hold all these tales together in a single mythology.

His story is about a shipwreck that left him drifting for 227 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific in the company of a fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (which is a whole other story). Escaping alone from a storm-tossed ship that carried a cargo of all the animals from his father’s zoo, Pi’s account to the novelist evokes the biblical story of a Noah’s Ark saved by grace and the castaway tale of a Robinson Crusoe enduring by his own inventiveness. His account of confronting the vicious cruelty of the great tiger elicits at once the tough truths of Darwin’s survival of the fittest and the redemptive awe of C.S. Lewis’ Narnian tales. It is Daniel in the lion’s den and Ishmael surviving the great white whale. It is Conrad’s Lord Jim, Homer’s Odyssey, and Hobbes’s Leviathan all in one. Call me Ishmael. Call me Pi. Only I am escaped. And I am escaped to tell—the story—to you. And the telling of that story is both the means and the end of my survival—of my being alive. Life of Pi.

And then, just as it seems to close, Pi’s story twists in the telling and opens up again when he must provide an account of his ordeal to insurance adjusters investigating the shipwreck. The investigators don’t believe the wild tale of tigers and zebras and hyenas on a lifeboat, regardless of how much Pi insists upon its truth, and demand of him a neater and more credible account. Worn down by their persistence at last, Pi tells a tale they can believe, this time about an equally harrowing adventure on the lifeboat—accompanied not by a tiger but by two sailors and his mother, who escape the ship with him and who assume the parts played by the animals in the first tale, murdering and cannibalizing each other until only Pi is left. It is an allegory of his earlier tale of the tiger. Or, the novelist begins to wonder, is it the other way around, with the tiger tale serving as an allegory of human cruelty and bestiality? In the end Pi asks the novelist (and the reader) to decide which story is best.

This philosophical and self-reflective novel—tale within tale within tale—focusing upon more than half a year on the ocean with a Bengal tiger for a companion, was thought to be unfilmable. Until Ang Lee made a 3-D visual masterpiece of it and won the Academy Award for best director this year (and a host of other awards, including an Oscar for Walt Jones ’01, see page 34). Lee had yet another story to tell, drawn from the same material, in which he spun a version of Life of Pi in images rather than words. What we see on screen is spectacular—magical, precise, believable, harrowing. It’s a grand illusion, of course, as any film is—a spectacle in the best sense. But the illusion works. And what we don’t see is, perhaps, more unbelievable than the tale it tells.

Before he even began shooting, Lee “pre-visualized” the film by transforming the novel into a cartoon so he could see it, and then made the cartoon into models so he could lend the vision perspective and depth. Only then did he build a set and start to block and shoot the film. To simulate the storm-tossed Pacific in a way that could be convincingly represented on film, Lee had a giant swimming pool (his own “Piscine”) carved into a Taiwanese airport runway—250 feet long and 100 feet wide. This artificial set became a world unto itself in which giant wind blowers and water cannons generated typhoon-level gales and swells. Combined with strategic camera work and digital effects, whatever strained the imagination in the novel seems irresistibly real on screen. Almost none of the Bengal tiger scenes involved an actual tiger. Illusion, again. Pi’s fierce companion was uncannily rendered in 3-D by more than 300 artists and computer scientists working endless hours over a period of years and across continents. Elaborate computer-based analyses of how a Bengal tiger’s fur moves over muscle and bone informed the artists and made the animation indistinguishable from footage of a real tiger.

Ang Lee made an interesting choice in his telling of the novel’s alternate representations  of the shipwreck, evoking the tiger version in stunning visual detail as if we were there, and allowing the human version, told for the insurance company, to be related only in words and materialized only in a typed report. No props, no effects—virtually unrealized as a cinematic experience. Evidently the filmmaker made the same story choice in images that the novelist had made in words: He chose the tiger tale.

And so, in Lee’s version of the story we come full circle. We are back to elaborate calculations again, constructing ordinary shapes and dimensions in infinite digits that are at once real and irrational, factual and transcendental, seen and only imagined—but, somehow, ubiquitous and commonplace.

We all live in the tales we tell, in the circle of our own lives, with a fierce companion at our side, threatening our existence and giving shape to our life stories. We live in the relationship between the circumference of our life’s wanderings and the through line of its diameter. We are in the infinitely unrepeating sequence of the life of pi. We all have our own stories to tell, and the responsibility to choose well.