Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Life of Pi

Since my son has had to read The Life of Pi as a high school assignment, I thought that I would finally buckle down and go through this magical realist novel, which won so many hearts in Canada a few years back. It also won a number of awards, including the extremely prestigious Booker Prize. The author, Yann Martel, is a Montreal resident with Spanish roots, but he did most of the work of writing in India, and there is a uniquely Indian flavor to the book.

What attracted attention to the novel was its novel premise: Pi, a lad of sixteen, survives 227 days on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat, while sharing the space with a 200 kg. Bengal tiger. It is not often that a novel's hero is a vegetarian, but Pi is forced by circumstance to overcome his non-violent predisposition, not only to survive himself, but to keep his carnivorous companion alive. Over the course of the ordeal, he even comes to the point of cannibalism as he descends into a state of despair and delirium. However, though this is undoubtedly a significant element in the story, it is not what Martel is trying to get at.

The challenge of the book is found in the introduction, where the author purports to tell how he came across the story he is about to tell. It is Pi's own uncle Adirubasamy, who tells him, "I have a story that will make you believe in God." Since that is the challenge, we must examine the book in that light: is it successful in "making us believe in God"? Is that even possible? It would take a particularly sensitive soul to allow any book to affect him in this way, but as a believer myself and as one who finds such things interesting, I am curious to know how, as an artist, the author has crafted his novel in keeping with this rather bold claim. After all, ideological novels are notoriously short of rasa. If Martel is trying to achieve this end by purely literary means, I would certainly like to know his technique.

The book is divided into three sections. The first part contains a summary of Pi's life before he left with his family on the fateful sea voyage to Canada. The second and longest part contains the description of the shipwreck and voyage with the tiger, including ever more extraordinary and unbelievable events. The last section is a kind of epilogue, containing within it the clue to Martel’s point about what religion is.

Pi Patel is the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, which has given him a deep familiarity with the ways of animals. One of the first statements about religion is, "I have heard as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion... I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both." Many of the observations found in the first part will return in the second, in particular those dealing with the nature of the penned or trained circus animal.

Pi’s other abiding interest is in God, for whom he has a natural love. Particularly striking, of course, is his desire to adhere to each of the three major religions he encounters--Hinduism, Christianity and Islam--each of which merits several pages of enthusiastic appreciation. He resists those who tell him that he must pick one or the other of them; on more than one occasion he defends his decision to "belong" to all three religions by blurting out, "Bapu Gandhi said, 'All religions are true.' I just want to love God!" Pi also describes his first encounter with “interfaith dialogue” in a rather funny scene where representatives of the three religions each tries to prove his own faith’s superiority.

He says of atheists that he can understand them, for they are just another category of believer, but he fails to comprehend agnostics, for “to choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”–and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack the imagination and miss the better story.

It is this last statement that perhaps best illustrates the point Martel is trying to get across. It appears again at the very end of the book, in the epilogue, where investigators into the shipwreck debrief him on his experience. After hearing the story, they express doubt that any such thing could have happened—it is not just his having had a tiger for a companion, but the various other, even more fantastical events, such as a carnivorous island full of meerkats. Finally, after the investigators insist, Pi agrees to tell them another version of events--the truth: “… a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story, an immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.” With that he recounts this other, shorter version, which though also filled with murder and cannibalism, contains none of the numinous complexities and even love that developed in Pi's relation with the tiger.

Pi asks the men from the shipping company which story they prefer, and the two men admit they like the first one.

In an interview given after winning the Booker, Yann Martel himself commented, "Reality is how we interpret it. Imagination and volition play a part in that interpretation. Which means that all reality is to some extent a fiction. This is what I explore in the novel." (Q&A in The Guardian)

It is rather clear to me that the common Indian allegory (Buddhist or Hindu) of "crossing the ocean of material existence" is what has been reproduced in the second part of the book. The boat represents the human body and the tiger, the lower animal nature that needs to be mastered. The tiger has a prosaic name, Richard Parker, whereas his own name, Pi, is a transcendental number, according to mathematicians. The magical yet dangerous island of algae represents the false shelters of material comfort that tempt one to stop the difficult journey to the "other shore." Pi has to travel without human companionship, but on arriving, his tiger immediately abandons him like the mortal coil; it is a moment of sadness and Pi thanks him, saying "I could not have done it without you." The crossing over the ocean thus represents the entire "life of Pi," not just a portion of it. Martel's "better story" is one that orders and gives meaning to an entire life. The "yeast" that he adds is, as the Bible says, "the Kingdom of Heaven.")

Let us examine this premise, for it is indeed one that has appeal to me. Indeed, I have long held that this is Rupa Goswami’s argument: When Rupa says (siddhAntatas tv abhedo’pi...) that all forms of God are the same from the dogmatic or theological point of view (as Gandhi or other Hindus would have stated), there is a proper method for assessing the superiority of the form of Krishna: it has more rasa. In other words, it is a better story.

I have been throwing this idea around for some time now, and those who have read what I have written are probably already familiar with this theme in my approach to spiritual life. Once again, it is a way of explaining religion without touching on the truth claims of God's existence or eternal life, etc. To say that "because it is a good story, it therefore must be true" is patently ridiculous. We can see dangerous myth-making going on constantly around us, and we know that we must protect ourselves against it. Iconoclasm mean myth-breaking. And yet, we cannot live without myths. We destroy one myth to create another. Belief in God is replaced by a belief in the superman; belief in miracles by one in science and technology. Each one is an overlay of magic on a reality that is unattainable, or even as we approach knowledge of it, remains inert and lifeless--without yeast or leaven.

It is through the mythopoeic faculty that we imbue our own existence with meaning. A life that is stripped of mythical power is a shadow of real human existence. And when we are stripped in this way, we have no choice but to take shelter in the myths of others--hence there is an encyclopedia of heroes, divine and secular, through whom we can live vicariously. But this can be dangerous, for nothing replaces "crossing the ocean" ourselves.

So, how does this "make one believe in God"?

Just before embarking on this detour into the Life of Pi, I listened to an excellent radio program from Australia called "All in the Mind" about the famous "body-mind" problem. The Australian philosophers who spearheaded thinking on the subject in the 50's presented a concretist approach that made no distinction between consciousness and the brain. "The mind is the brain." "No spooks in the machine." The fundamental problem, however, is that the existence of consciousness will always be a mystery, for it will always make us separate from our experience. Martel does not say that he will prove the existence of God; it seems rather that his intention is to convince us that believing is a better option than not believing. The great ontological arguments for the existence of God lead us to find proof for God's existence in the questions themselves, not in the answers.

There are many other book reviews of The Life of Pi on the Internet. I found the Wikipedia article to be useful.

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