Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stories with or without animals: Life of Pi

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

I would like to be clever - but I'm falling asleep. So I'll just say "Thank you" to Pamela (from the dayton time) for guest posting with me today. And I'm not at ALL jealous that she was able to express herself so well in one page when it took three-and-a-half pages for me to (attempt) the same. D*mmit!

Without any further ado, let’s see what…]

He Read:

“…For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” Jesus said. "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
"What is truth?" Pilate asked.
(John 18:37-38)
Once again the damnable burdens of Expectation have laid themselves upon a work of art under my consideration – with deleterious results. Well, to be fair, Life of Pi’s author, Yann Martel had a hand in placing this burden himself; by having one of his characters make the statement (within the first five pages of the book, mind you – in the Author’s Note!) that “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

I call that a tall order. Not that he had to convince me – I already believe in God. But even in the mind of a Believer, this places a thought that the story you are about to read is so amazing that it will alter your world-view (or, at least, your God-view). And, in that regard, Life of Pi came up well short in this reader’s view.

Not that there aren’t a great many things to enjoy in this book. In fact, although my initial reaction after finishing the novel was to feel a bit let down (for reasons, that I will not reveal in great detail – in deference to those who have not yet read the book), those feelings have softened considerably during my preparation of this review. On reflection, I would describe Life of Pi as a flawed masterpiece; a book of great ambition which, despite generally fine writing, a compelling central story, and some exquisite moments, doesn’t fulfill all its ambition.

The book tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, born in Pondicherry, India (on the southeastern coast near Sri Lanka), younger son of Mr. Santosh Patel, the owner and operator of a zoo at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden. The boy adopts the nickname “Pi” on his first day at secondary school (equivalent to a combined Junior & Senior high school) in order to leave behind the hated nickname “Pissing” that had dogged him in childhood. Pi’s father decides to relocate the family to Canada in the face of Indira Gandhi’s near-dictatorial policies during the mid-Seventies. The zoo’s animals are sold or donated to other establishments – and many share the ship that will take the Patels from India to North America.

The novel’s central story is set in motion when the ship carrying sixteen-year-old Pi, his family and the animals sinks without warning on July 2, 1977, somewhere in the North Pacific between the Philippine and Midway Islands. Pi survives the next 227 days in a life boat that he shares (at least initially) with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan – and a 450 lb Bengal tiger.

Or does he? Again, in the interest of trying not to spoil the book for those who haven’t already read it, I will say only that one of the Martel’s ambitions seems to be making the reader consider the nature of the truth – or, as Pi says it, what makes “the better story”. And the book is certainly successful in arousing such consideration (a worthy accomplishment in and of itself) – though I suspect that some readers will feel as Pi does following his long journey:

What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example – I wonder – could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less? I’ll tell you, that’s one thing I hate about my nickname, the way that number runs on forever. It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go Otherwise, you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.
This passage encapsulates both what I love about this book – and what troubles me. I love the language and perspective that Martel imparts to Pi’s first person narrative. But the “cleverness” of the surrounding presentation only detracts from his central story and themes. He actually separates the novel into exactly 100 chapters, but not in a way that demonstrates any particular belief “in form (or) the harmony of order” but almost like a trick. (As an illustration, the entirety of Chapter 97 reads: “The story.”)

Another troubling element for me is the abrupt shift of tone in the last section of book, where he introduces two characters from the Japanese Ministry of Transport in an attempt at Abbott and Costello comedy relief. Not only is the shift in tone unnecessary – but the stuff isn’t very funny. Although this section of the book is crucial to the overall impact of the story, the execution does not fit with the rest of the novel. It reminds me of a trap that many films seem to fall into these days; where the filmmaker wants to include the full range of human emotion within a story – even though some of those emotions don’t fit in (I call it the “Mrs. Doubtfire effect”). Even much of Pi’s dialogue in this section of the novel doesn’t seem to fit the character we have come to know in the preceding 350 pages. It’s not that the rest of the book doesn’t have funny moments – but the humor in this end section seems quite forced.

[Note: This next section is improved if you can easily lapse into a fake French accent a la John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.]

Despite these missteps, Life of Pi has wonderful moments – like the meeting of Mr. Kumar (Pi’s favorite teacher who both a Communist and atheist – take that you provincial American pig dogs!) and Mr. Kumar (the humble Muslim baker who introduces Pi to Islam – and again you capitalistic sniffers-of-other-person’s-bottoms!) at the zoo. It is the baker who firsts arrives on the scene at Pi’s invitation. There is a sublime section (that I will not attempt to excerpt) where Pi frets over trying to recognize Mr. Kumar in the crowded street outside the zoo – and he is greatly relieved once they make their way in.

It was with great pride that I waved the ticket collector’s hand away and showed Mr. Kumar into the zoo.
He marveled at everything, at how to tall trees came tall giraffes, how carnivores were supplied with herbivores and herbivores with grass, how some creatures crowded the day and others the night, how some that needed sharp beaks had sharp beaks and others that needed limber limbs had limber limbs. It made me happy that he was so impressed.
He quoted from the Holy Qur’an: “In all this there are messages indeed for a people who use their reason.”
We came to the zebras. Mr. Kumar had never heard of such creatures, let alone seen one.
While they are observing the zebras, the other Mr. Kumar arrives on the scene. Both Mr. Kumars feed a bit of carrot to a zebra.

Mr. and Mr. Kumar looked delighted.
“A zebra, you say?” said Mr. Kumar.
“That’s right,” I replied. “It belongs to the same family as the ass and the horse.”
“The Rolls-Royce of equids,” said Mr. Kumar.
“What a wondrous creature,” said Mr. Kumar.
Life of Pi is also filled with wonderful ideas. Martel eloquently contradicts much criticism of zoos (as prisons for wild animals) – with his argument that what animals desire most is predictability and routine. But, unfortunately, he undermines his own argument almost immediately with the following illustration:

If you went to a home, kicked down the front door, chased the people who lived there out into the street and said, “Go! You are free! Free as a bird! Go! Go! – do you think they would shout and dance for joy? They wouldn’t. Birds are not free. The people you’ve just evicted would sputter, “With what right do you throw us out? This is our home. We own it. We have lived here for years. We’re calling the police, you scoundrel.”
Don’t we say, “There’s no place like home”? That’s certainly what animals feel. Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water.
Although this illustration is intended to show how wrong-minded people are who want to return zoo animals to the wild, isn’t the reverse true as well? Isn’t an animal, now living in the wild, being “evicted” from his house if he is captured and moved into a zoo – whether or not living in the zoo might be better or easier long-term? I bring this up, not because I believe zoos should be abolished, but because Martel’s desire to be clever once again blunts the overall impact of an idea that (I think) he wants to make in the book.

The novel does a better job dealing with its spiritual themes. As a boy, Pi is drawn to spiritual devotion. Not content with only his native Hindu, he goes on to practice as both a Christian and Muslim too. Martel shows respect for each one of these systems of belief – but Pi’s secret triple-life is finally exposed when the priest, the patel and the imam of the town all happen upon the Patel family during a Sunday afternoon stroll. The scene reveals how ridiculous it is when followers of these religions focus most of their attention on the superficial differences in their spiritual practice – rather than be reconciled with one another by greater devotion to the central truth they all share. When the young Pi is told that “he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim” and asked to choose only one, he responds:

“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi on the esplanade. Stick in hand, an impish smile on his lips, a twinkle in his eyes, the Mahatma walked. I fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, “I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do – love God.”
So I leave you with that thought (a mighty good one – maybe enough to justify reading a 400-page book). If that thought appeals to you, pick up a copy of Life of Pi and make up your own mind. If not, this may not be your cup of tea.

She Read:

If we citizens do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams. (Yann Martel, Life of Pi)
A good author makes you want to believe what the author is telling you. A really good author makes you believe. The Life of Pi was easy to believe, too easy perhaps, and I was completely drawn in to the plight of Pi Patel. I read the entire novel in one day, which is really saying something, as I ought to have been taking care of my children, ages 6, 4, 2, and 7 months.

[Please note: They survived.]

There comes a point with some fiction, both written and spoken, when you simply cannot believe any longer. There are signs, of course, that you are approaching that point, but if you’re like me, you brush those signs aside, even without knowing that is what you’re doing. Eventually the burden of the indicators tips the scale and the reader is forced to reevaluate what is truth.

Incredible things happened to Pi; that is the truth of the story. It is a story of survival, adaptability, and strength; that is undeniable. But what really happened? Pi tells his story twice, the first version is bizarre and lovely, the second is crude and horrific.

Pi asks his audience which story is better to believe, and because some actions are less reprehensible when performed by animals, rather than humans, the audience prefers the bizarre and lovely version. In real life, we humans so often believe the crude and horrific over the bizarre and lovely. We do not take into consideration which is the better story to believe, and we are rarely given the opportunity to choose which truth to believe.

Martel finds truth in religion, and fortunately for him, there is no shortage of truth touted by religious folk. In the beginning of the novel, Pi hungers for God, diligently studying three religions, and practicing each with great reverence. A character in the book makes the claim that Pi’s story will cause a person to believe in God. My counterpart believes this statement to be difficult to achieve; I believe the statement to be an Agnostic antagonizer. Throughout the novel, Martel clearly takes issue with believing nothing, which makes the question “which is the better story to believe?” even more loaded.

I asked myself that very question about ten years ago when I realized I needed to make my mind up about God. I’m not really the kind of person to live in the grey area, I’m more of a black-or-white, it-is-or-it-isn’t kind of girl. I chose to believe.

Regardless of your religious beliefs or thoughts about God, Life of Pi is a fascinating, well-crafted novel chock full of beautiful imagery that will inspire your imagination.

[Hope you found today's reviews at He Read/She Read to be enlightening. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including any suggestions or constructive criticism.

Thanks again to the lovely Pamela for being my review partner today. Please take a minute to stopy by the dayton time and share some comment love.

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Middle Aged Woman said...

These reviews make me think of The World According to Garp in which the same question is addressed. What makes a better story. I think that when it comes to stories, it's not a matter of belief, it's whether, like Pamela, you get completely sucked in, what works for the reader.

Sprite's Keeper said...

I think I need to read the book if only to find out if Pi becomes Pie. :-)(Someone better find that funny because I am on the FLOOR!)

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy reading your reviews. Good work from both parties.

Pamela said...

I think the only thing that could have made this book better was if Pi came with pie.

Anonymous said...

I'll do a review with you, Jim. I've already sent out the email.

Actually, I wouldn't mind doing more than one review, so if there are any male HR/SR readers that want to give Jim a break from being the He, speak up.