Sunday, April 12, 2009
Life of Pi
I just read a series of professional reviews on Amazon.com for Life of Pi. Of course, no reviewer is ready to commit to a serious superlative, so they say meaningless things like, "The book's middle section might be the most gripping 200 pages in recent Canadian fiction," or "If this century produces a classic work of survival literature, Martel is surely a contender." Because I don't have a career as a critic on the line, I will say what they really wanted to say. I will employ those risky superlatives.
I cannot think of a better novel. I've certainly never read better. I loved every sentence. I have never, and I mean never been so astounded with the totality of a novel after having read it. I finished it around midnight last night and could not go to sleep. Bengal Tigers and vicious sailors haunted my dreams. I woke up every half hour wondering if other people were awake so I could talk to them about it. I spent all night trying to figure it out and what my stance would be on this book. Did I still like it after an ending like that? Whose side would I take? What part of this work of fiction was true?
If you have not read the book, and want it to be a surprise, then stop reading after this paragraph. I want you to know as little about the plot as I did when I read it. I did not even know the premise. I knew it had something to do with animals, India and religion. Leave it at that.
If you haven't stopped reading now, this sentence is your last out.
Life of Pi creates a laboratory controlled crisis of faith. It tells you one story "with animals" that is impossibly hard to believe. Perhaps the most unbelievable part besides that Pi survives being stranded over 220 days at sea with the sole companion of a 450 pound Bengal Tiger is that he happens upon a literal forest-island of man-eating algae and aquatic lemurs. He recounts his story to the officials who do not believe him. They keep prying him for more information, which he supplies, but they still are not satisfied. Then he asks if they would like a story "without animals," and they respond that they would like that very much. He then tells a story of horrendous human brutality and cannibalism which is simpler than the previous telling, but (to me at least) equally unbelievable.
And here comes the crisis. Which do you believe? Do you believe the one you've been told from the beginning, despite its fantastical elements, or do you believe this tale of human depravity, which, if you look closely is no more believable than the first?
I believe the first for all the same reasons I believe in God, and with all the same difficulties, but on a lower level. To prefer the second to the first because it is more "reasonable" is a mistake. There were definitely inexplicable lemur skeletons in his life boat when he got to Mexico--proof of his visit to the algae-island. And the second story is also unbelievable for several reasons. As unlikely as it was that he would randomly collide with an adrift Frenchman in the middle of the ocean, isn't it just as unlikely that only he and his mother would be in the lifeboat? They just left the father and son? And if he really had been so dependant on the Frenchman, would he really have survived so long without him? In either telling, it seems impossible that he could have survived so long, but to me the first at least explains the "hows."
Likewise, there are certainly rational reasons for believing in God. On several different occasions I have had miraculous answers to prayers. Also, a thorough studying of the doctrines reveals an intricacy and beauty and logic that I simply do not believe is manufactured sensationalism. But none of that alone would be enough to give someone the kind of faith required to last a lifetime. Like everything, faith is ultimately a choice. That's something people don't get. And to me, my religion "is positively 'brim' with answers to the 'why' queries concerning human purpose." (Neal A. Maxwell, “‘Yet Thou Art There’,” Ensign, Nov 1987, 30)
And if one were to think that it is the more adult and sensible thing to pick the second over the first because it's not shying away from the sad and brutal in nature, that would also be a mistake. The first is full of misery and brutality. I would not sign up for or survive Pi's ordeal, and as he poignantly reminds the Japanese officials, his family dies in both.
It reminds me of C.S. Lewis' observation on the nature of Aslan/Christ: He is not a tame lion. God is not a chump, and the story with animals is not an easy way out. But it is a story with hope and triumph.
At the beginning of the book an Indian promises the author he will tell him a story that will make him believe in God. Throughout the entire work I waited for the punchline. I waited for the miracle. But the real miracle is what happens to the reader when presented with the two versions. We are thrust into the valley of decision. Do we believe that 16 year-old Piscine Molitor Patel conquered the lord of the animal kingdom in a forsaken lifeboat, or do we believe that he survived because of the terrible tutelage of a cannibalistic sage?
I gratefully turn to a profound remark I heard as a freshman from Dr. Terryl Givens:
I believe that we are—as reflective, thinking, pondering seekers—much like the proverbial ass of Buridan. If you remember, the beast starved to death because he was faced with two equally desirable and equally accessible piles of hay. Having no determinative reason to choose one over the other, he perished in indecision. In the case of us mortals, men and women are confronted with a world in which there are appealing arguments for God as a childish projection, for modern prophets as scheming or deluded imposters, and for modern scriptures as so much fabulous fiction. But there is also compelling evidence that a glorious divinity presides over the cosmos, that God calls and anoints prophets, and that His word and will are made manifest through a sacred canon that is never definitively closed. There is, as with the ass of Buridan, nothing to compel an individual’s preference for one over the other. But in the case of us mortals, there is something to tip the scale. There is something to predispose us to a life of faith or a life of unbelief. There is a heart that in these conditions of equilibrium and balance—and only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally “enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16)—is truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness.
I'm certain that Martel would have been pleased that I had to ponder over whether or not I liked his book. I'm positive he would thrill that I was disturbed by the crisis forced upon me, and that I doubted the value of the first story, which I now love all the more. It was he who pointed out that there must be an allowance for some degree of doubt, citing Christ in the Garden and on the Cross as an example. I agree with him that Jesus' pleas for the cup to be removed and the anguished cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me" were the truest of petitions and inquiries. But as he also explains, the worst possible thing is to build a cabin in that valley of decision. To spend a life in indecision and doubts of doubts is to be a burden on everyone, including and especially self. Jesus himself said "I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." (Rev. 3:15-16)
And so I return to my review of the reviewers. Decide for yourselves. Is it a great book, or is it a good example of the latter half of the first decade of the new century's central-Canadian oceanic-survivalist fiction involving a Tiger? I think my stance is clear.