Thursday, April 15, 2010
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn't nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.
The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, "I think you'd really like it."
He was right.
It's one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you've finished. It's one of those books where people see you reading it and say, "I read that - it's really good, isn't it?" It's one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we'll get to that....
It's a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it's the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine - who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name - develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.
He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India's political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.
Until the ship sinks.
Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship's sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can't forget the tiger.
Pi's mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There's only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other's company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest - a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don't want to be controlled. Pi's ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.
But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It's also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It's about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it's about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, "The author is cheating," and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn't have.
The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It's the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.
It's kind of a modified version of Pascal's Wager - the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal's idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you're right, then you'll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you're wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you're wrong, again, no harm, no foul.
There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, "I believe I am losing brain function" lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.
I don't necessarily agree with this. I think it's an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don't believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth - a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip - born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don't need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.
But Martel's isn't about what is provably true.
Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi's adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi's story, because it's fascinating. We don't sit there and think, "This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze." We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, "true."
So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is "true," because it's a more interesting story. And Pi's adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn't to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn't care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that's the better story.
The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi's conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don't. That's just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.
"To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
Yann Martel on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Amazon.com