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Issues of the Day Of Israelis and Palestinians and the Life of Pi

After reading the book, it never occurred to me that Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi was writing allegorically about Israelis and Palestinians. But after seeing the movie, the  grand cinematic achievement by filmmaker Ang Lee, it seems to me that the central tension in the tale, two adamant adversaries trying to survive together on a lifeboat adrift at sea, offers a splendid metaphor for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. 


Pi, a sixteen year old Indian boy whose father, a zoo owner, decides that the family will move to Canada in the face of economic hardship, has had a heterodox upbringing  and spiritual encounters which have attuned him to questions of meaning and purpose. At one point he decides to extend friendship to a tiger, Richard Parker, by offering food to the great feline through the bars of its cage. Pi is saved from having his appendage, if not his life taken by the beast when his no nonsense father intervenes.  Pi gets a thorough tongue-lashing for endangering himself by cavorting with an enemy.


Shortly afterward,  the family boards a freighter and journeys to their new country in the company of a menagerie, former residents of the zoo they once owned and which are to be delivered to new keepers.


Late one night Pi is awakened by the tossing of the ship on mountainous seas during a raging storm.  Curious, he leaves his family’s cabin and ventures onto the deck, at first exhilarated by the power of nature but promptly sobered when its overwhelming power threatens to engulf the ship. He tries to alert his parents and brother to the great danger but the ship is taking on water and a crewman grabs Pi and consigns him to a lifeboat in an attempt to save him. He succeeds, leaving Pi alone to watch his family go under as the ship sinks into the abyss. 


Pi, formerly sheltered and guided, finds himself utterly alone aboard a lifeboat with an orangutan known as Orange Juice, an injured zebra and a hyena as his mates. He watches in despair as the hyena acts with basest instinct to make quick work of the zebra and the humanoid simian. The hyena’s appears to exist solely as a killing machine with no greater purpose than to feed on others.


The predator would doubtlessly come after Pi too, but he is suddenly  eliminated, an unfolding we welcome as partisans of the boy, who has won our hearts after all he has endured – a first love left behind, the departure from his homeland, the entombment of his family aboard the sinking freighter.  Yet circumstances become even more brutish when Pi’s savior is discovered to be the huge, ferocious, half-ton carnivore, Richard Parker, who too has found refuge on the boat but has stayed hidden under a tarpaulin. 


A vegetarian, Pi must somehow satisfy the tiger’s gnawing gastric predilections without himself being a meaty offering. In their small refuge afloat on the edge of existence where the boundless sea and endless sky meet and where no sign of deliverance is in the offing, the tiger concedes to  a tenuous standoff as long as its needs are met by Pi.


To oblige, the youth  learns to fish and even consumes some when things become desperate. But quite naturally, given their direst of straits and the improbability of their survival, it is manna from heaven and a freakish floating shelter that enables them to continue their journey.


To reach an entente with Richard Parker, Pi must evolve from an innocent who assiduously guards the purity of his soul to a wiser being, struggling for a balance between his pacifist ideals and the forceful deterrence his territorial conflict with the tiger demands. Aiming for  a détente with his boat mate, Pi reflects: “In times like these I remember that he has as little experience with the real world as I do. We were both raised in a zoo by the same master. Now we have been orphaned and left to face our ultimate master together.”


Israelis and Palestinians have been adversaries since the formation of our modern national identities, which were sparked at the same moment as a result of immense historical forces beyond our control. Amid the turbulence of our times we cling to the same tiny life craft, struggling to preserve our hold on the common patrimony we contest. But to exist, we must coexist, which checks whatever absolute rights we claim. And like Pi and Richard Parker, our only hope is to maintain a neighborly respect for a fragile boundary between us, hoping that this will lead to calmer waters through which we might pass.    

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved