Friday, March 19, 2010
All You Need Is Love (Baad daadaa daadaa!)
Book22: "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel
To be honest, “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel took me for a spin. It came as a recommendation from a friend, who said it would make me think, but that it was also an easy read. I registered the latter statement; I moved through and followed the story with ease because much of it was plot driven story telling. I don’t think I was listening to his former statement, however, as I am still left pondering about what conclusions I’ve drawn from the book.
In its most simple form, “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel is the story of a young Indian boy named Piscine Molitor Patel (aka “Pi”) and his Royal Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker. Pi hails from Pondicherry, India where his family owns and runs the local zoo. Due to economical and political changes in India, Pi’s father decides to sell the zoo, sell most of the animals to other zoos around the world, and relocate his family in Canada. They set off on a Japanese oiler with a number of the animals in tow and are met with disaster. Due to unexplained reasons, the ship sinks, and Pi finds himself the lone human survivor. His only company is Richard Parker (they were joined by an injured zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena, but nature takes its course and the other animals are eaten). For 227 days, Pi battles the odds of his trans-Pacific voyage, sharing a life boat with limited supplies and tools with a Bengal tiger.
That’s the easy part.
The book is actually divided into three sections. The first section is an adult Pi reminiscing about his childhood. He recounts how he was named after a French swimming pool, the name calling he encountered in grade school and how he overcame it, and how he decided that he wanted to practice Hinduism, Christianity (Catholicism), and Muslim all at the same time. The second section is the story of how Pi survived the sinking, the Pacific Ocean, and living with Richard Parker. The third section focuses on two Japanese men, representatives of the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport investigating the sinking of the Japanese oiler, who visit Pi once he washes on shore and asks for the facts of his survival. The second section makes up the bulk of the novel, but all parts are equally important in delivering Yann Martel’s point.
I don’t think I’ve completely grasped the point. It feels a bit like the first time I wrapped my head around “The Matrix” (at the tender age of 14), or when I found the answer to “Who is Keyser Soze” after watching “The Usual Suspects”. It’s difficult, but I’ll try to sound it out (more for myself than you, the reader).
The part of Section 1 that piqued my interest was when Pi joined and began practicing three religions all at one time. In each case, he’s attracted to the loving nature of the religion introduced to him by a kind patriarch of the religion. In all three religions, he finds peace in their holy texts and their ritualistic praying. The three religious men discover that Pi is practicing the other two religions and they confront Pi together in order to have him choose one. When faced with the ultimatum, Pi disengages the religious men by saying, “I just want to love God.” I concluded two thoughts from these events. The first is that all three religions preach love; love of God, love of man, and love of self (I guess The Beatles were right?). None of the religious men delve into the restrictions of or the violent events resulting from his religion. They preach that their religions are about love. The second thing I noted was part of what attracted Pi to each religion: the stories. This is where all the religions seem to sprout from; stories, scriptures, readings, texts - whatever you want to call them - that tell the “history” of God/gods. Each religion tells a different story with different endings and different deities/God/gods/prophets, but they are all still stories, and it’s up to a person to believe in and put faith into one set of these stories (the religion), or none at all. I think this is what Yann Martel might have been getting at, and it becomes evident in Section 3 of the novel.
Pi, resting in a Mexican hospital after washing up on shore, tells the story of his survival to the two Japanese men. They do not believe him and demand the true story. Pi retells his story, this time replacing the animals (the zebra, orangutan, hyena, and tiger) with humans instead (a young sailor, his mother, a vicious cook, and himself). The men realize the similarities in the stories and that they must take Pi’s word for it in either case since neither can be confirmed as true. Pi asks them, since they have to take his word and it makes no factual difference which they believe, which story they think is better. Both agree the story with the animals is better and Pi responds, “And so it goes with God.”
Based on the writing alone, “Life of Pi” is a great read. Yann Martel is an excellent story teller who gripped me with descriptions of desperation and fear and the rise and fall of faith in self and God when faced with surviving against the worst odds (take it from my experience; the middle of nowhere Ocean is a daunting, fearsome, and beautiful landscape), but the concluding point about story telling took it to another level for me. As I said, I don’t think I fully grasp Martel’s point, but the fact that I don’t and I’m still racking my brain thinking about it made a good novel great for me.