Maddenation

Life of Pi

There are plenty of real reviews of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi out there, and I don’t have much energy today, but I’d like to recommend the book and offer a quote or two. I will summarize that the book is about a teenager from India survives a shipwreck and drifts for 227 days in a lifeboat along with a Bengal tiger. That’s the plot. The purpose of the book, according to a character who purportedly tells the author about the story, is “to make you believe in God.” The book is written as if it were researched by the author and recounted exactly as it happened. In that way, it becomes a sort of magical realist novel, one that causes readers to question the nature of reality and, in this case, of God. It’s very beautifully done.

I am a sucker for metaliterary moments (writing about writing, often done sneakily), and Martel gives a great one near the end of the book. When Pi recounts his tale to two investigators (supposedly caught on tape and transcribed by the author, including parts the two men spoke surreptitiously to each other in Japanese, here translated), they cannot believe that he survived with a Bengal tiger or discovered a floating island of algae with meerkats living on it (among other things). Pi confronts them:

“So you want another story?”

“Uhh … no. We would like to know what really happened.”

“Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story? … Isn’t telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn’t looking upon this world already something of an invention? … The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

This reflects something Eduardo Galeano said when I interviewed him. I asked about his playing fast and loose with verifiable fact in some of his fragments. He said:

We begin with the moment an act happens in reality, outside an author’s head, and then the author reproduces in himself what happened outside himself. Then this idea, this reproduction of the act inside the author’s head, also becomes a part of reality. The original act, which comes directly or indirectly from reality, is transfigured in the process of creation.

I should mention, also, that the book won the 2002 Booker Prize, which is given to the best novel written in the British Commonwealth in the year. This prize is probably the most prestigious literary award given for a single book (even though you have to be a citizen of a Commonwealth country to win).

In conclusion: Life of Pi is a clean-cut, fantastical journey of a book, entertaining enough in its plot, but, more than that, it causes delightful pondering about the nature of reality, the power of stories, and the existence of God, whether you call him Allah or Vishnu or Jesus or any other name. You will smile all the way through. I highly recommend it.

PatrickQuotes/Reviews07/31/04 2 comments

Comments

Dad • 08/02/04 12:11 AM:

I’ve heard about this book before this, and I intend to read it. Your comments about metaliterary writing remind me of the book I reviewed here last November, The Things They Carried. Tim O’Brien talks about the “happening truth” versus the “story truth,” raising issues similar to those of both Martel and Galeano. Indeed, what is reality and how accurately do we, can we, know it?

David • 10/17/04 7:59 PM:

I just finished reading the book last night. Awesome. I was motivated to read it by many people’s recommendations - Pat’s being the one that got me to finally do it (thanks Pat). I also read it because I heard there were some themes related to zoos and ecology (we are studying them now).

What a fantastic book. Some of the best writing I have read - just a joy the whole time. In that way it reminded me of Hemingway. I don’t know that the two are alike in terms of literary stuffs, but I like both for similar reasons. I kept thinking to myself - “That’s a perfect/clever/creative way to say that!” Just like Dad’s comment mentioned - it reminded me also of “The Things They Carried” - both in ideas about true and storytelling, and in writing style.

I am still in the glow and awe of the book. I have much thinking to do. And talking with Pat. I’m not sure I ‘get it’ all just yet. Everybody should read it.

Turns out I underlined and wrote down the EXACT same phrase from the end of the book that Pat quoted above. Gnarly! (and I stopped reading this entry when you first posted it, for fear of learning too much - I had already decided to read it when I read the first paragraph of the post).

I’m pretty sure I will use the book as discussion in class. (I already have recommended it to the kids). I plan to use the quote above - focusing on “The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it” - I just don’t know how I’m going to use it. Yet. Ideas?

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