Saturday, March 16, 2013

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

That's what fiction is about, isn't it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?

This book is a triumph.  The story begins in Pondicherry, India, with the son of the a zookeeper named Pi Patel. Pi's life in India is unique and sets up the main part of book. Pi is a curious and eternally optimistic young boy. In the setting of the religious diversity of Southern India, Pi becomes a follower of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.  Pi, the eternal optimist, webs together the most hopeful messages of the three religions.  Foreshadowing a much larger test of faith, Pi has a chance encounter in the market with his three religious masters.  Previously unaware of Pi's divided loyalties, the three men of god have a nasty fight over Pi's faith, highlighting all the nasty parts of the three main faiths.  This encounter makes an impression on the young Pi, but his own faith in god, and not the humans who define god, endures.  And is yet to encounter its biggest challenge.  Pi's family decides to move from India to Toronto.  They make arrangements with a Japanese freighter because they have to transport and sell their animals in North America.  The freighter sinks and, amazingly, Pi ends up on a life raft.  That's when the challenges, and the brilliance of Martel's book begins.

“I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always ... so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.” 

It is also where my plot summary stops, for reasons that will only become clear once you read the book yourself (which, you will).  Suffice the say, the book takes on a sublime quality reminiscent of Moby Dick (a book Pi actually references in one of his many soliloquies). Pi creatively applies his knowledge base of animals, nature and religion to ensure his survival.  The books does drag a bit as Pi gets progressively more discouraged by the challenges of surviving on his own, but Martel's imagery,  symbolism and Pi's intellectual tangents allows the reader to power through the long plot lull.  The comes the end, which will blow your mind and, more importantly, change your perception of everything you just read.

"If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

We know Pi survives because current day is intermixed at random points of the story.  Until chapter 99, the message of the book is not very clear, but then it suddenly hits the reader. The book questions why choosing to believe the most optimistic version of reality from equally unlikely versions is viewed as a form of naievte instead of immensely logical.  At its heart, the book reaffirms faith.  Its a rarity to find a serious book that reinforces, instead of questioning, faith, optimism and hope without being hokey.  

Even more remarkable than Martel's narrative is the fact Ang Lee was able to make this into a movie.  Obviously the movie is not as good as the book.  But I can see why many called this book unfilmable, and it took a special person with the vision to create a movie that matches the depth of the book.  Read it first - the surprise is gone, but the sutibility of Lee's directions become more apparent and genius.


Brent Waggoner said...

I liked Life of Pi, but do not, under any circumstances, read Beatrice and Virgil. It's terrible.

Cath Brookes said...

This is a very well written book, the details the author has a wonderful style of describing the events of this story.

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