Monday, August 15, 2011

"Life of Pi" by Yann Martel

Pi is an Indian boy, the son of a zookeeper, who really loves God. He sees the world through Hindu eyes. He says the world makes sense to him as a Hindu. But when he encounters other religions, he becomes a Christian and a Muslim, too. And we're told that his story will make us believe in God.

Most of that story occurs after a shipwreck, when the 16-year-old Pi finds himself drifting in a lifeboat across the Pacific Ocean with a 450 lb. Bengal tiger. Yes, it's quite a remarkable idea for a book.

Since its initial publication in 2001, Life of Pi has become a huge sensation, and this month, we've been reading it in the ClassicScienceFiction discussion group on Yahoo, despite the fact that it's not science fiction or even fantasy. It's certainly giving us a lot to talk about.

But I must admit that I'm not crazy about the book. It was pretty slow to catch my interest, not for nearly a hundred pages, when the shipwreck finally occurs. And I didn't get especially interested for another fifty pages or more after that.

Of course, this isn't my usual kind of book, either. I might have liked it better when I was younger and had more patience. Indeed, I might have liked it a great deal, then. But these days, I generally want a straightforward story with no bullshit. And this story is anything but straightforward.

In fact, we're having a big debate in our reading group about the meaning of the book. As I noted, the story, we're told, is supposed to make us believe in God. But I think it should do just the reverse.

Unfortunately, I can't discuss anything further without huge spoilers. If you think you might read the book, I urge you to stop here. Otherwise, I'll continue below the fold:

Spoilers Below

The first part of Life of Pi is about Pi's early life in Pondicherry, India. His father owns a zoo, and we learn quite a bit about that. We learn, in particular, that social rank is essential to animals. On the top or on the bottom, an animal is only secure when its social ranking is clear.

Territory is critical, too. An animal can be perfectly happy in a zoo, as long as its territory contains what it needs - and as long as that territory remains inviolate. These things will become quite important later in the book.

We also learn about Pi's enthusiasm for religion. Raised Hindu, he becomes a Christian and a Muslim, too. To my mind, it's clear that Pi has a fantasy-prone personality. He can belong to three mutually-contradictory religions, because the truth isn't particularly important to him. As he notes several times, it's the story that's important.

This also becomes important later. In fact, this whole thing is just a setup for the main story. When Pi is 16, his father closes the zoo and sells the animals, and they take a ship to Canada - along with some of those zoo animals. Somehow, the ship sinks, and Pi finds himself on a small lifeboat along with a full-grown Bengal tiger.

Initially, there are a few other animals with them: an injured zebra, an orangutan, and a vicious hyena. But eventually, it's just Pi and the tiger. And Pi decides he must train the tiger to acknowledge Pi's dominance and respect his territory.

This is when the story finally gets interesting. And note that it's all in the first person. Pi is telling us this incredible story about his 227 days on a lifeboat. With a tiger!

But some of the story is just not very believable (and believe it or not, I don't mean the parts with the tiger, which Martel writes quite plausibly). When Pi finally drifts onto land in Mexico and is taken to a hospital, his questioners don't believe him. So Pi gives them a completely different story, one of human murder and cannibalism.

So what are we to make of all this? I have not read any other reviews of this book, since I much prefer to set down my own interpretation without being influenced by others. But one member of our group sees the first story as a religious invention, with the tiger as a metaphor for God. The second story is supposed to be the real one, but believers are supposed to prefer the first.

Apparently, the first story is supposed to make us believe in God because it's a better story. We prefer the story with "God" (the tiger) in it.

But my interpretation is different. Martel makes it clear that Pi has a fantasy-prone personality. The truth isn't important to Pi, only the story is. And considering the terrible privations he suffers, not to mention the emotional distress, it's no surprise that he might hallucinate, anyway.

So I don't believe either story. For one thing, the second story doesn't seem much more believable than the first. For another, I think Pi just finds stories irresistible. After all, he doesn't care that each of his three religions contradicts the others. The truth doesn't particularly matter to him, certainly not compared to a good story.

What really happened on the lifeboat? I don't think we can know that. I'm not sure even Pi knows. Earlier in the book, he deplores "dry, yeastless factuality," preferring the stories that religions tell us. And I think that he will always pick the better story over the truth. Pi is the ideal of religious belief.

Now I'm just the reverse. I think the truth matters. I think it's important. I certainly do enjoy fiction, but I never confuse it with the real world. And I find true wonder in science. Describing science as "dry, yeastless factuality" is about as far from reality as you can possibly get. But science is more concerned with the truth than with anything else.

Should Pi's story make us believe in God? Just the reverse, I'd say. Pi's story is just a story. It's a tale told by a fantasy-prone individual. There might be some connection with the truth, but we just can't tell. Because for Pi, a good story will always trump reality.

Of course, this whole thing is fiction. So what is Martel trying to tell us? I have no idea. I don't know what his intent might be. I don't even care, or not much. But what he actually told me - deliberately or not - is not to look to religion for the truth. Religion provides fantastic stories, but they're fiction.

Religious believers are like Pi, eager to embrace a good story. But if you want the truth, you must look elsewhere. Enjoy fiction, but don't believe that it's real. A good imagination is useful, as well as fun, but reality matters. The truth matters.

That's how I interpret Life of Pi. Others disagree. And as I said, I have no idea what Yann Martel's intent was.

It's an interesting book. Parts of it, in fact, are really fascinating. But I wasn't wild about it. It wasn't easy to stick with the first half of the book. And I don't like the end of it much, either. But it's certainly interesting. I'm glad I read it.


Jim Harris said...

I read your review on my new iPad with the Flipboard app. Your pages look great on it, but it only plays some of the videos.

When it comes down to it, don't all the faithful come up with a good story that includes God.

We believe different. We don't want to make up stories. We want to know what's real. And maybe Martel is like us, and The Life of Pi is how he sees the faithful.

WCG said...

Maybe, Jim. Or maybe I'm just interpreting the book through my own long-established mindset. It's really hard to tell.

But yes, we skeptics, we atheists think that the truth really matters. I've had believers tell me that they'd rather believe in God anyway, even if he didn't exist.

I find that just astonishing. Isn't that simply... cowardice?

And how can you think that the truth doesn't matter? I can understand wishing that a fantasy were true. But not caring if it's true or not? Believing it simply because it's a pleasant thing to believe? I can't understand that.

Jim Harris said...

You and I want to know the truth at all costs.

But believers want God to exist at all costs. I don't think you understand the power of their desire. This is what Martel was writing about. I have no idea if he has the same desire or not, but he does see it and writes about it.

At first, like with the Jews of the Old Testament, God was their protector. Heaven and afterlife didn't exist for humans yet. People wanted God as the ultimate father.

Then the Christians came along and convinced people that belief in God also brings life after death. A lot of people want that.

The Muslims came along and added a third component, an orderly society.

Most people can't deal with a chaotic random universe. They want it to have meaning. They want to be protected from evil. And they want to not die.

The faithful go to extremes to rationalize God exists but the hardest thing they have to rationalize is when evil happens to good people.