Amurph11’s CBRIV Review #22 – 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?” – Life of Pi
Six years ago, I checked out Life of Pi from the Santa Monica library. I checked it out because it seemed like a textbook example of magical realism, and magical realism is a genre of fiction so perfectly tailored to my literary tastes that I have to think I would have invented it if it didn’t already exist. The dust jacket told me all I need to know: it’s about a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger, and it has a tragic backstory. Before I read the first page, I already loved it.
Except I never got around to reading the first page, or any of the pages after. It wasn’t for lack of trying; for weeks I picked it up only to put it right back down. Eventually, I took it back to the library. Six years and three cities later, I found a copy in my best friend’s apartment and picked it back up again. Only after reading the entire thing in one train ride did I realize the reason for my delay: six years ago, I was not ready for Life of Pi.
It’s not that it’s hard to read; in fact, in terms of reading comprehension, it’s a pretty simple book. I would imagine it is probably even now being assigned to high school literature students the world over. The plot can be summed up in one run-on sentence: an eccentric boy grows up in a zoo in Pondicherry until his zookeeper fathers decides to move the family to Canada, at which point their ship sinks, and Pi ends up on a lifeboat with a tiger, a hyena, a zebra, and a chimpanzee, until eventually everyone only he and the tiger – whose name is Richard Parker – are left. The prose is also not particularly taxing; though it is dense, it balances brilliantly between the utilitarian and the magical in a way that makes it immensely readable. What I could not have handled was the story, which is first and foremost a meditation on who God is, what truth is, and what the two have to do with each other.
Six years ago, I was in no mood to read a meditation on God. Pi grew up in a zoo; I grew up in the church. I could draw some pained metaphors between the two, but it’s enough for you to know that God was the central fact of my life for seventeen years. I didn’t choose it, but I did accept it, until it occurred to me that it was possible to walk away. And then it became not only an option, but a necessity. It took a long time to walk away, but eventually I managed it. I found myself in 2006, smack dab in the middle of freedom. I was tired of thinking about God, and more to the point, I had absolutely no idea how to go about thinking about him at all, even if I had wanted to.
Back then, if you had asked me what the opposite of the truth was, I would have said a lie. I would have been wrong, but Christians are nothing if not a black-and-white kind of people, and that’s a hard habit to break. It’s why so many of us become atheists after leaving the church: because if the God of the Bible doesn’t exist, than no God can exist. If it’s not an absolute truth it has to be an absolute lie. The alternative – that bits and pieces might be true, that it might be part of a larger truth, that truth in and of itself might just be ungraspable – does not bear thinking about. Shades of grey are absolutely terrifying when one is used to the relative safety of a black and white world. But as it turns out, there is a long stretch of grey between the black and white of truth and lies, and it’s where most of us live.
Without spoiling anything for those of you like me that are a little behind on this book, Life of Pi treads the same grey area between truth and lie. Most fictional books do, but what differentiates this one from the rest is that it is aware of it; indeed, it is the entire point. Stories when unpublished could just as easily be called lies, as Martel points out in the most jarring of possible ways – after we have already invested in his story, and accepted its fictional truth. By calling that “truth” into question, he is also questioning the nature of stories, and the difference between truth and lies. In the end, Martel seems to conclude that there’s not very much difference at all. After all, the only way you can measure a lie is by its level of truth, so we’re all working with a system of measurement that we don’t understand. When it comes to truth, we are all just looking at shadows on a wall and choosing the ones we like best.
Magical realism is the only genre that could take on these themes without coming off as ponderous. These questions wouldn’t be as arresting if they weren’t set in the context of a boy, a tiger, and a vast ocean. Nor would the conclusion be as devastating, were we not already invested, were there not so much at stake. Like any story, what matters most is how it ends. As Pi says, “it’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go.” The conclusion to this book will either be enormously unsatisfying or exactly what you were looking for, depending on your tolerance for the ambiguous. Most likely, it will be both. At least it was for me.
I have no idea what I would have taken from this story if I’d read it six years ago, but I know it wouldn’t have been nearly the same as what I got out of reading it this time. If I read it six years from now, I assume it will say something very different. That’s the nature of stories – they say something different to everyone, and sometimes that they say is different from one reading to the next. That’s the reason we keep reading them: we’re always searching for that ineffable moment when you read something and instantly recognize it as true; and not only true, but important, some integral piece to your understanding of yourself and everything around you that you were missing until you read this sentence, in this book. That experience is the closest I will probably ever get again to religion. This book is many things – a story about a boy and a tiger, a meditation on God, a philosophical contemplation of truth – but mostly, it’s a joyous celebration of that moment, and of why we read stories in the first place.
Recommended for: Readers. I can’t imagine there are many of you left that haven’t read it, but if you haven’t – get thee to a library.
Read When: Anytime. If you need some escapist lit, if you’re feeling disillusioned, if you want to read something that makes you think, if you just want to get flat-out bowled over by a piece of fiction – there’s no bad time to read this book.
Listen with: Calming nature sounds from your white noise machine. No, but seriously – don’t listen to anything. Read in silence. It’ll do you good.