In both Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the stories are narrated by their main protagonists, now fully grown, Amir in the case of The Kite Runner, and Piscine Molitor Patel, or “Pi,” in the case of Life of Pi. Both men grew up in affluent families in societies highly divided by ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Both novels are divided into sections, neatly separating phases of the protagonists’ lives, and both involve unforeseen hardships, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that chases Amir and his father from their native country, and the sinking of the ship on which Pi and his family are sailing to a new life in Canada. Both stories involve reflections on lost lives and better times. Where these stories strongly diverge, however, is in the guilt that Amir carries with him throughout his life because of his failure to come to Hassan’s aid while the latter was being beaten and raped and by the subsequent ostracism Amir directs towards Hassan because of that guilt. Both of these stories involve less-developed countries – Afghanistan and, to a much lesser extent, India – and both protagonists represent the majority ethnicities/religions of those countries: Pashtun/Muslim and upper class Hindu. Finally, Amir’s occupation as an adult is that of novelist, while Pi tells his story to the novel’s author, Martel, in a fairly unique plot device of inserting himself into his own fictional story for narrative purposes. Martel’s narrative structure is considerably more complicated than Hosseini’s in that, in addition to using his own persona, Martel has two investigators question Pi for the purpose of further relating Pi’s story while revealing inconsistencies and mysteries that are part of Pi’s spiritual journey.
If Pi’s journey is spiritual as well as physical, Amir’s is entirely physical, but heavily tinged with emotional growth. Amir’s guilt is part of his being; his soul, if he has one, is seriously damaged by virtue of his abandonment of his closest friend in the latter’s time of need. He has dedicated his adulthood to immersing himself in the world of fiction while relegating to the deepest recesses of his conscience the errors of his youth. As Amir reflects at the beginning of The Kite Runner:
“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”
Amir’s story ends with his one great chance of some sort of redemption. Traveling to Afghanistan to search for and hopefully adopt Hassan’s orphaned son, Sohrab, Amir finds the boy, sullen and abused, but finds in his ability to bring the slightest hint of a smile to Sohrab’s face that bit of redemption. The following, admittedly lengthy passage is beautifully related by the now-grown Amir as he participates in the kind of activity he and Hassan so enjoyed in their shared youth, kite flying:
“I looked down at Sohrab. One corner of his mouth had curled up just so.
Hardly there. But there.
Behind us, kids were scampering, and a melee of screaming kite runners was chasing the loose kite drifting high above the trees. I blinked and the smile was gone. But it had been there. I had seen it.
“Do you want me to run that kite for you?”
His Adam’s apple rose and fell as he swallowed. The wind lifted his hair. I thought I saw him nod.
“For you, a thousand times over,” I heard myself say.
Then I turned and ran.
It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn’t make everything all right. It didn’t make anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of a startled bird’s flight. But I’ll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts the snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting. I ran. A grown man running with a swarm of screaming children. But I didn’t care. I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the Valley of Panjsher on my lips.
For two stories of vastly different journeys, that Amir’s would be the one with the more uplifting ending is a bit of a surprise. Pi has triumphed over real adversity; Amir has carved out a new life for himself in America, but his escape from Soviet-occupied Afghanistan does not hold a candle to Pi’s hundreds of days lost at sea with a carnivorous tiger. Martel’s story, though, is more layered, and, as noted, more spiritual. Life of Pi’s ending is, consequently, more emotionally riveting in a manner one might not have expected. While Amir’s journey back to Afghanistan involves considerable risk, it is rather straightforward. Pi’s soul, which most definitely exists, is also wounded. While his mantra remains "that all life is interdependent, and that we live and breathe via belief,” there is sorrow in his soul that makes his final interrogation potentially cathartic. As Martel’s novel ends, the two investigators are left with doubt regarding the veracity of Pi’s story of his days adrift at sea, and we are left to question whether his story of the animals is actually a metaphor for a darker truth. It is in this context that Martel has his protagonist inquire of the investigators which of two stories they choose to believe:
"So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?"
Mr. Okamoto: "That's an interesting question..."
Mr. Chiba: "The story with animals."
Mr. Okamoto: <translation>"Yes.</translation> The story with animals is the better story."
Pi Patel: "Thank you. And so it goes with God."
Mr. Chiba: <translation>"What did he just say?"
Mr. Okamoto: "I don't know."
Mr. Chiba: "Oh look-he's crying."</translation>
Pi’s tears may represent the emotional release he has long sought. He may feel unburdened, or he may simply be releasing the emotions he has kept inside himself as a part of his survivor’s coping mechanism. If the tale of the animals is a metaphor, then his journey was much more like Amir’s than we might wish to think.