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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Life of Pi (2003)


I Once Caught a Bengal Tiger This-s-s-s Big.

With over 1250 reviews already registered for LIFE OF PI, I first thought there could be nothing more to say about this marvelous novel. But after scanning the most recent 100 reviews, I began to wonder what book many of those reviewers had read. Had I relied on 98 of those reviews, I would have expected a far different book than the one I actually read.

Let's begin with what LIFE OF PI isn't. It's not a Man against Nature survival story. It's not a story about zoos or wild animals or animal husbandry. It's not ROBINSON CRUSOE or SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON. It's not a literary version of CASTAWAY or OPEN WATER, and it's not a "triumph against all odds, happily ever after" rescue story. To classify it as such would be like classifying THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA as a story about a poor fisherman or MOBY DICK as a sea story. Or THE TRIAL as a courtroom drama, THE PLAGUE as a story of an epidemic, HEART OF DARKNESS as a story about slavery, or ANIMAL FARM as an animal adventure.

Martel's story line is already well-known: a fifteen-year-old boy, the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India survives a shipwreck several days out of Manila. He is the lone human survivor, but his lifeboat is occupied by a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, an injured zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan. In relatively short order and true Darwinian fashion, their numbers are reduced to just two: the boy Piscene Molitor Patel, and the tiger, Richard Parker. By dint of his zoo exposure and a fortuitously positioned tarpaulin, Pi (as he is called) manages to establish his own territory on the lifeboat and even gains alpha dominance over Richard Parker. At various points in their 227-day ordeal, Pi and the tiger miss being rescued by an oil tanker, meet up with another shipwreck survivor, and discover an extraordinary algae island before finally reaching safety.

When Pi retells the entire story to two representatives of the Japanese Ministry of Transport searching for the cause of the sinking, they express deep disbelief, so he offers them a second, far more mundane but believable story that parallels the first one. They can choose to believe the more fantastical first one despite its seeming irrationality (Pi is, after all, an irrational number) and its necessary leap of faith, or they can accept the second, far more rational version, more heavily grounded in our everyday experiences.

LIFE OF PI is an allegory, the symbolic expression of a deeper meaning through a tale acted out by humans, animals, and in this case, even plant life. Yann Martel has crafted a magnificently unlikely tale involving zoology and botany, religious experience, and ocean survival skills to explore the meaning of stories in our lives, whether they are inspired by religion to explain the purpose of life or generated by our own psyches as a way to understand and interpret the world around us.

Martel employs a number of religious themes and devices to introduce religion as one of mankind's primary filters for interpreting reality. Pi's active adoption and participation in Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity establish him as a character able to relate his story through the lens of the world's three major religions. Prayer and religious references abound, and his adventures bring to mind such Old Testament scenes as the Garden of Eden, Daniel and the lion's den, the trials of Job, and even Jonah and the whale. Accepting Pi's survival story as true, without supporting evidence, is little different than accepting New Testament stories about Jesus. They are matters of faith, not empiricism.

In the end, however, LIFE OF PI takes a broader view. All people are storytellers, casting their experiences and even their own life events in story form. Martel's message is that all humans use stories to process the reality around them, from the stories that comprise history to those that explain the actions and behaviors of our families and friends. We could never process the chaotic stream of events from everyday life without stories to help us categorize and compartmentalize them. Yet we all choose our own stories to accomplish this - some based on faith and religion, some based on empiricism and science. The approach we choose dictates our interpretation of the world around us.

LIFE OF PI bears a faint resemblance to the movie BIG FISH, also a story about storytelling and how we understand and rationalize our own lives through tales both mundane and tall. Martel's book is structured as a story within a story within a story, planned and executed in precisely 100 chapters as a mathematical counterpoint to the endlessly irrational and nonrepeating value of pi. The book is alternately harrowing and amusing, deeply rational and scientific but wildly mystical and improbable. It is also hugely entertaining and highly readable, as fluid as the water in which Pi floats. Anyone who enjoys literature as a vehicle for contemplating the human condition should find in LIFE OF PI a delicious treat. By Steve Koss

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