Friday, May 30, 2014

Life of Pi

This is a thrilling adventure story that has made me laugh and weep.  In this review I plan to talk about the wonderful, exciting story in its entirety.  It's better not to read it if you want to maintain a sense of surprise which Yann Martel, amazingly, continues to do in his story.  It's that sense of surprise that kept me reading, dragging me through the story as if I were tied to a truck rolling through a busy street.  I couldn't put the book down.  I was pulled through it by my curiosity.

A boy and a tiger on a boat.  It sounds like it belongs under the magical realism section, with Salman Rushdie.  But its not.  The story is told by a narrator acquainted with the mathematics of animal-human interaction.  But to confine this story to one within the limits of zoology would be ludicrous.  Pi is a student of religion and animals.  Religion is something that differentiates humans from animals and that question of what makes us humans unique is a recurring theme in the story.  For Pi, the love of God is mankind's unique and greatest joy.  It's not a God that belongs to a people or a culture, but a universal God, the Creator of a world that Pi loves.  "A God", as Pi says in a memorable line, "whose presence is reward enough".

If love of God is unique to human beings, then so is intelligence.  And it is intelligence that Pi uses to survive the long journey, on a small boat, with a tiger.  With constant awareness of the tiger's state of mind, and the resources available to him, Pi does survive, and this seemingly miraculous survival is what makes up the bulk of this story's 100 chapters.

Pi survives to tell the tale.  Had the story finished with his final adventure, another battle against the inevitable hunger and danger of his travel companion we would have a story both miraculous and amazingly - acceptable.

But the story continues.  After his rescue Pi is interviewed and after great stress gives a second description of his survival.  This description is gruesome, horrific, and since it differs to the story we have just finished reading, raises very challenging questions.

Firstly and most importantly, which version is the true one?  Could such a horrific and gruesome story have been made up?

But on the other hand, can we dismiss the original story as a mere metaphor for the second "true" story?  What of the spectacular details, and those parts which don't seem to map to the second version so easily?

Is the first story just a metaphor?  If it is, then this is ultimately a book about the human need for myth as a means for living with impossible truths.

If it is not, and the first story is the true one, then this second story is just a bone thrown to a dog, a "rational" version of events thrown to a "rational" interviewer, a fool for whom "reason is gold".

Which is the true answer?  Do we accept the first or the second version?

Ultimately, Yann Martel asks us to choose:  Is it a believable fantasy, or is it a necessary metaphor?

How we choose is maybe related in no small measure by our own relationship with reason and rationality.  Do we rely on them entirely for our survival, or might we allow for something else, some unfathomable good "beyond the realm of thought and language"?