Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Book Review: "Life of Pi"

(Who am I kidding? It's not really a book review as much as a rumination over a book that I've read. Need a real review? Google the title; you'll find something better somewhere else.

If you haven't read the book and intend to do so, please stop reading now. I have no desire to ruin things for you, but I also have no desire to write a bland, vague paragraph about the book and follow it up with all sorts of CAPITALS and exclamation points!!! and bold-faced warnings telling you that beyond this point there be spoilers. OK? Check back later, there might be something for you then.)

I don't know what the point is. That religion is a kind of storytelling, and that both are primal urges in human beings? That the major religions are the same? That the major religions (or maybe all religions) are comforting hokum?

Pi becomes a carnivore while adrift, much to his initial Hindu horror. Is this a sign that religions can be comforting but not always practical in the real world? That anyone, under the right circumstances, can shed his morality?

It's about explaining the unexplainable. How did we get from point A to point B? If no one was there to see it, how can we know? We imagine, we invent, and we fill in the blanks as best we can. The only one who knew what really happened on that life boat was Pi, and he has two different stories. Which one is the best one? As he says, neither one explains to the Japanese gentlemen what happened to their ship. So which is the better story.

The one with the tiger, they agree.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

And if you, as either the teller of the story or the one being told, can successfully hold contradicting accounts in your head and derive comfort from the friction that results (a kind of heat to keep you warm, I suppose), then what's the harm?

I don't know if I can agree with such a conclusion. I don't know if I can object to it, either. Before he tells his story, Pi says that it will make you believe in God, and this is perhaps the part that is rubbing me the wrong way. On the one hand, Piscine is a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, all at the same time. He sees the stories of each as comforting and challenging, pushing him to be the best practitioner of each religion that he can be, which would in turn make him a better person. (And you can't help but like him. He's a terribly precocious scamp, full of moxie and all that.) Sometimes the stories of each faith contradict one another, sometimes they compliment one another, and sometimes one or another will fill in a mysterious silence on a topic that the third chooses not to address. He finds harmony where others find discord.

Okay, that's fine so far. But maybe only if you're the one who is being told the story.

If you're telling the story, you need to fill in those gaps. You need to have explanations, even if the point of the story isn't to explain that particular thing. If you're listening to a story, you've got some wiggle room. You can take what you like and discard what doesn't work. If you decide that the wrap-around beginning and ending of "Saving Private Ryan" doesn't work for you because isn't logically possible, then you can ignore it and focus on the parts of the movie that were good. When Pi stitches together the pieces of three different faiths into something that suits him, that's his right as the collector of those stories.

His adventure with Richard Parker, though, marks his transition from a listener or a collector to a storyteller, and with that comes a higher responsibility. This holds especially true when telling stories about faith, which Pi's story undoubtedly is about. Although in what I am supposed to have faith, I don't know.

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