Thursday, September 16, 2004

Life of Pi

If you have not read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, do not read any further. Simply go immediately to Amazon and buy it, or trundle down to your local Barnes and Noble and make the purchase. Otherwise, my spoiler filled review of this book begins… now:

This is one of those rare books that reaches out and punches you right in the gut, evoking a visceral reaction that so few authors are capable of. Chuck Palahniuk does it; William S. Burroughs does it; Harlan Ellison does it. Usually though they do it with a shock of some sort that’s just outside the realm of social acceptance and well into the “eww…” sector. Though I find Palahniuk usually has a coy message hidden in his stories (such as the extinction of the family unit creating our dear Tyler Durden in Fight Club), the type of writing that is heart (or stomach) rending like that is usually nihilistic. Life of Pi is different.

The story is broken into three parts. The first is about a young Indian boy whose family owns a zoo. He is a precocious little Hindu who begins to notice that God exists in more forms even than his Hindu pantheon and becomes not only a practicing Christian in addition to his native faith, but later tacks on Islam. The young boy, Pi Patel, not only finds no conflict, he sees this as his true expression of faith. Circumstances lead to his family relocating to Canada—and bringing along the zoo. They hire a freighter and set sail. The second part of the book begins when the ship sinks.

Pi makes it to a lifeboat, but he is not alone. The lad shares his space with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and most troubling, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It becomes a story of the human will to survive as boy and tiger (the other creatures falling prey to the hyena, who then falls to the tiger) work out a way to live with one another. What Pi believes will be only a few days becomes seven months adrift.


In the third part, Pi makes it to land, and you think you have this book all figured out. Oh yes, what a great story about how this boy’s faith kept him going, and he has survived and is the better for it.

Then you get the real story, one of murder and cannibalism where each of the animal players is revealed to be a person, and that final survivor, the cunning Richard Parker is really the boy dealing with his own acts: the death of his mother, his defeat of the ship’s cook that has been so primly described as hyena. A lesser author would stop with that. Martel doesn’t.

He asks you to choose. He asks you to choose the better story, illustrating an early chapter where he compares the death experiences of two people. One, a lifelong atheist sees the tunnel and the light, and makes the deathbed leap of faith to believe. The other, and agnostic, hems and haws about asphyxia and tricks of the brain, and “misses the better story.” With the book, there is almost the feeling of being cheated, and uncomfortable pain when you realize what Pi has really endured as opposed to his incredible adaptation. He rips your heart out of your chest, and asks if you have the ability to put it back in again by accepting the better story.

It is rather serendipitous that I came upon this book right now—or maybe I’ll choose the better story and admit God placed the book in my hands when I most needed it. I have been carrying on a discussion with a pretty fundamentalist Christian about biblical interpretation; should the Bible be literally interpreted at all times? I have been trying to get him to understand that the Bible can be right without necessarily being correct. For example, whether or not there was an Adam or Eve is not the question or the point—the story illustrates how we were as blissfully ignorant as beasts before we learned the difference between good and evil; we became self aware, started building laws and religions and sky scrapers. The Bible in this case is right, but likely not literally correct.
Pi gives me a great illustration on how this can be so, and also puts me in the position of my fundamental friend. It is my safe beliefs that are called into question, and now I must decide which version of Pi’s story is right or correct. I am reminded that my ability to get people to understand different viewpoints on religion can also hurt their own, and how I must use a certain discretion. Otherwise I become as guilty as those who I accuse of attacking different faiths, rather than trying to accept and understand. Thanks Mr. Martel, and thank you God, for the kick in the guts.

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