Thursday, July 30, 2009

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up.

At such moments I tried to elevate myself. I would touch the turban I had made with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S HAT!"

I would pat my pants and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S ATTIRE!"

I would point to Richard Parker and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S CAT!"

I would point to the lifeboat and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S ARK!"

I would spread my hands wide and say aloud, "THESE ARE GOD'S WIDE ACRES!"

I would point at the sky and say aloud, "THIS IS GOD'S EAR!"

And in this way I would remind myself of creation and of my place in it.

But God's hat was always unraveling. God's pants were falling apart. God's cat was a constant danger. God's ark was a jail. God's wide acres were slowly killing me. God's ear didn't seem to be listening.

Here is one of those books I had sort of resisted reading just because they're so popular. I'm more cynical than I care to admit, I suppose, and I usually assume the worst about super-popular things simply because they're so popular, especially when there is a vocal minority who say that thing is awful (and isn't there always?). But I won this copy from Amanda (thanks Amanda!) who didn't care for the book, and so I decided to give it a chance. As is usually the case, I found that neither is the book as awesome as its supporters would say, but neither is it horrible. Life of Pi is a good book with some substantial flaws.

On one hand, it's a survival story that makes Hatchet look like a camping trip. Briefly (because I know you know about it), it's about young Pi Patel, who is on the way to Canada from India with his zookeeping family and a bunch of animals when the boat sinks, leaving him, a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker in a lifeboat together. The zebra, orangutan, and hyena are quickly dispatched but Pi spends months at sea trying to train Richard Parker to respect him as the alpha male on the boat and ensure the survival of them both.

This section of the book is really quite gripping; it's no small task to make being stuck in a lifeboat for months a good tale, tiger or no tiger. The thing about being stuck at sea is that very little happens. Martel does a great job of getting us to really inhabit Patel's skin, dealing with the incredible burden of survival while struggling with the notion that, in all likelihood, none of his family survived.

Unfortunately, I think this is one of the rare species of book that works better as an adventurous yarn than a spiritual statement. The problem is that the parts of the book that speak to Pi's spirituality are the thinnest parts of the book. Martel paints him as a lover of God who, back home in India, tries to become simultaneously a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. This leads to some pretty out-of-place comedy when his three spiritual teachers meet and realize what's been going on, like in a sitcom when the main character's three girlfriends accidentally end up in the same place at the same time.

But the worst part is the end--and here I'll add the SPOILER ALERT for those who haven't read it--which disappointed me, though Jim loved it. In fact, he loved exactly what I disliked about it: in the book's final chapters, Pi is pressed by interrogators from the shipping company to tell what "really happened." Pi changes his story to one where he and his mother were trapped in the lifeboat with a murderous Frenchman and others. The interrogators quickly discover that all the characters in this second story correspond with the animals from the first (and Pi with Richard Parker, which is admittedly a nice touch), and ask Pi why he lied. Pi's excuse is that the first story is better, and yet retains the truth of the second. The idea here is that Pi's story is like the three different stories of God in the three religions he follows; none are quite truthful but they all represent the fundamental truth of God's benevolence.

I have several issues with this. The first is that, really, is this much better than the old film trope where the character wakes up to find out it was all a dream? Honestly, I think I'm right to feel a little cheated. Secondly, the second story that Pi tells is pretty horrifying, and would have made a good story in his own right. I don't think the interrogators' agreement that the first story is "better" makes sense. Better how? And why? Because it has animals?

Thirdly, there is nothing particularly reflective about this kind of spirituality. I run the risk of offending here, so I'll tread lightly. In her post, Amanda remarks that she didn't like what Pi has to say about agnostics. I honestly don't recall what Pi says about them, so I reserve judgement--but isn't what Pi is espousing to us a sort of agnosticism? The assertion that we understand fundamental truths about God through a number of colorful stories leaves what we know, by nature, very vague. Nor does it address the parts of those religions which directly contradict each other (how, for instance, do we reconcile a monotheistic and a polytheistic religion?). This is exactly the reason that Pi's words about God come across so thin--they are generally lacking in substance. One might respond that one thing we learn about God is He is (They are?) fundamentally mysterious, yet there is nothing mysterious about the supposed "true" story about Pi's journey. We are supposed to accept that the story with the tiger is better, because it is more whimsical perhaps, and less cruel, but I think that perhaps this raises parallels that Martel does not want to raise.

I feel as if I am in the minority in this, when you average in Carlton and Brent, so I'd love to hear your thoughts. However, I will restate that I did like the book, though I feel like this flaw prevented me from really thinking highly of it.


Amanda said...

I only read the first 20-30 pages before I decided it wasn't really for me. What he said in those pages about agnostics was that no one was really agnostic, and that people who claimed to be were just idiots who were unwilling to choose between religion or atheism. It's a common sentiment, but I disagree with it. I would, considering I'm an agnostic who has been both religious and atheist in the past and has found neither to be fulfilling.

I just...from those first pages, I got the impression that Yann Martel, as a person, is a bit arrogant. Like he feels like he's going to shove a moral down your throat and will act smug about it afterwards. Maybe it's because of the whole books-to-Stephen-Harper thing. That put a bad taste in my mouth before I ever started Life of Pi. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood when I tried to read it and it didn't appeal to me at that moment. I won't say the book is bad - I didn't read enough of it to know one way or another. The beginning just turned me off and I didn't have any compelling reason to continue. Maybe I'll pick it up again some day.

Glad you at least partway enjoyed it, though.

Christopher said...

I agree with you about the Letters to Stephen Harper, or whatever it was called. It definitely comes off a little self-aggrandizing (and would be found more suspect, I suspect, if it were directed toward a liberal politician).

Christopher said...

Also: didactic. That's the word I should have used. This book is overly didactic--it will shove a moral down your throat and act smug about it afterwards.

Nihil Novum said...

I think one of the best things about the ending of the book is that it isn't particularly didactic. It's been a while since I read it, but I thought the end of the book was somewhat open-ended, in that the reader really gets to choose whether he thinks Pi's story--the one with the animals--is actually a powerful symbolic way of explaining what really happened to him, or just a crazy way to explain why none of three religions seemed to do a whole lot for him.

Of course, the framing story makes it fairly obvious that Pi is about the happiest person in the world, and no delusion is really implied, so maybe the setup invalidates the ambiguity.

Nihil Novum said...

Also, the quote about agnosticism is this (I actually quoted it in my review): "To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."

Amanda said...

That might have been the quote that irked me. I seem to remember something right before that where he said it was only agnostics who made him angry because of their inability to choose. Of course, I can't check, since I gave Christopher my copy...

Nihil Novum said...

Ha. Well, I think it's in that same section when he talks at some length about agnosticism. I can see why it could be frustrating to someone who identifies as agnostic. Here's the longer quote:

"I'll be honest with you: it is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the Garden of Gethsemene. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if he burst out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a mode of transportation."

Carlton Farmer said...

I don't think the book was particularly didactic.
Also, the major religions are nearly identical. And the differences between monotheistic and polytheistic religions are minuscule.

Amanda said...

Yep, that's the quote that got on my nerves. Understandably. Even still, that's not why I gave up the book. That just added another mark against it. I just couldn't get into it.

Christopher said...

To cast the entire plot of the book in doubt in the service of a statement about faith is pretty didactic.

Carlton Farmer said...

I don't agree that Martel does that. And I think that labeling this novel didactic is just if the whole book was just build up to some sort of "teaching moment." (Way to bring it around to the new of the day, Carlton!)

Nihil Novum said...

Carlton, I'm more or less in your camp regarding the book being didactic, if for no other reason than that there is a possibility left open that the more fantastic explanation, that is, the entire novel up until the end, is what actually happened.

I do feel like that, if he's saying that religion is just a story people tell to help them bring sense and beauty to a world they don't understand, he kind of undercuts his point, but I still like the ending and thought the book itself was entertaining and thought provoking.

Christopher said...

But it DOES seem like the whole thing was leading up to the "teachable moment!" It DOES!

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree with this review.

I stopped reading after you suggested how Pi was a hypocrite and didn't like the book because of that.

It demonstrates human flaw and makes Pi an unreliable narrator which in the end, we discover to be more true than we'd have ever imagined.

Anonymous said...

Hi - just found this site and am finding your reviews very interesting and enjoyable. One thing though - I just read this over Christmas, and I'm fairly certain Martel *isn't* saying that the shorter, more cruel version of the story that Pi gives in the final chapter is the true story (and the story with Richard Parker false). For starters, throughout the book Pi seems to be making points about seemingly unbelievable facts about animals actually being true (e.g. animals escaping and managing to hide within a city, and being able to train animals in the way that Pi does with RP). He then reiterates this to his questioners at the end ("Is love believable?" etc.)

So I *think* that the analogy with religion is, crudely, that both religion and the "Richard Parker version" are harder to believe but not impossible. (After all, is it possible to believe something which is impossible to believe?) And that it is worth making the "leap of faith" towards these "better stories".

Anonymous said...

PS I do think the book has some weaknesses but I did find it thought-provoking. In fact by coincidence I was just thinking about the agnosticism point earlier this evening. It just occurred to me (this didn't really click at the time) that Martel's point might be that agnosticism is perfectly reasonable as a philosophical position (in fact, arguably it's the only reasonable one as nothing else is provable), but one can't really employ it as a "philosophy" in terms of something to apply to daily life. Either you choose to incorporate God (or god, or gods) into your life, or you don't. (Or you oscillate, as I do!)

All the best...and keep up the good work!

ashmitasaha said...

this is a very good post- but honestly, I don't think Yann Martel wanted to focus so much on Pi's religious inclinations. And I also think that the twist in the tale at the end is really a falsity that Pi invents just to appease( and thereby dismiss) the interrogators. You can read my review of the book here

Loraine said...

You have a really nice review =) did you know that it will be in 3D adventure film? Something to look forward to either ways. Here's my review by the way:

Have a nice day! :)

russeldewey said...

Overall an EXCELLENT book. Very much enjoyed the introduction and early chapters - little slow in the middle hence the 4 star rating - and then BAM! The last chapter is eloquent, beautifully written, and makes you say WOAH! I recommend this book, and encourage readers to make it through to the end (even if it involves some skimming to get there).

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