The Unfair Critic vs Life Of Pi

10 05 2013

life_of_pi_ver2Warning: I will spoil everything

This is a hard post to write, because I find myself in endless ironic loops. I’m just going to barrel forward and try to ignore them, you can do as you like.

I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I only knew what everyone knows about it: boy gets stuck on a lifeboat with tiger. I like animals, and I like ocean voyages, and I was hoping those things would be dealt with somewhat realistically. I was engaged by part 1, about Pi’s life in India. I thoroughly enjoyed part 2, the part about being stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger. I found myself frustrated and angry by the end of part 3, when the author brings everything back around to a question of faith. It’s not the book I want it to be, which is my problem, not the author’s. The author, as far as I can tell, achieved exactly what he intended, and I commend him for it.

I didn’t see the movie, and I don’t plan to. I think I would hate it. The still images I’ve seen from the movie glisten with that CGI sheen. I don’t want this story to shimmer with magic. The situation is fantastic enough; I want the sights and sounds and smells to land with matter-of-fact, undeniable reality. I want to believe it. I want to be on that lifeboat with that tiger. I want to breathe the air in the middle of the ocean with a wild predator, at once dangerous, inaccessible, and part of a bond with a human being.

Part 2 of the book accomplishes all this admirably. Pi’s strategies for dealing with the tiger are surprising, ingenious, and plausible. Their journey is arduous and enthralling, and believable. The distance between human and tiger is never entirely bridged, because hello, it’s a wild animal. Believability is key. I desperately didn’t want the story to become fantasy. I enjoy fantasy, but with this story I was hoping to feel a more authentic connection to the natural world; the ocean, the sky, wild animals. Again, my problem. What’s the point in approaching any work of art with such specific expectations? I’m not writing the book. I can interpret it in my own way, but I don’t get to decide what happens.

Still. Expectations met, as I said, in Part 2. Even though there were some elements that stretched plausibility, that might be called magical realism. The oil tanker that blindly brushes past the castaways seems unlikely in the vast ocean, but also seems like one of those events so ridiculous it has to be true. The island of algae may or not have any basis in actual botany, but I had no trouble believing it. The one thing that really threw me was meeting the other blind sailor in the other lifeboat. That was so utterly unlikely, I thought the whole episode was a hallucination, right up until the two Japanese reps discuss it in Part 3.

Part 3, when Pi tells his story to the men from the shipping company, and they don’t believe him. So he tells them another story, with no wild animals, that they can believe. And then I start to doubt this wonderful story I’ve just finished. Why would the author do that? Probably for the same reason he wrote 100+ pages of Pi being in India and absorbing different religions. Pi is pious (is that why Martel chose that odd name for his protagonist?) and he prays a lot at sea, but it’s his empirical knowledge of zookeeping that saves him. So what’s all this religion in aid of? Only the central theme of the book, it turns out. In the end, we are given a choice. Believe the unbelievable, the much better story, or fall back on what fits with our own experience. Have faith, or don’t.

To clarify, I don’t really doubt the story with the tiger. It’s pretty clear what really happened to Pi (if anything can be said to have “really happened” in a work of fiction.) I think Martel is just giving us an exercise in faith, a miniature model of faith. I am not religious, so when I hear people talk about faith a part of me switches off. Faith is nothing to do with me. So I was frustrated to get to the end of the book and feel evangelized to, even in a most subtle and friendly way.

Still, I have to admit, all the things I wanted from this book–the sense of connection to the ocean, the sky, wild animals, the natural world–most people would call that a spiritual impulse. I don’t mind calling it that. One can seek and feel a connection to the larger universe without believing in God. We skeptics get a lot of spiritual juice from scientific observation. That’s why I so craved, and so appreciated, the realism in this story. Realism was my best path to a spiritual experience. When faith became the clear central theme, I almost felt my realist path to spiritual connection devalued.

Almost, but not quite. In the end I have to just let it go, as Pi lets Richard Parker go, connected and disconnected at the same time. Which again is the nature of spiritual experience, because unless you are fully enlightened and enter Nirvanna there will always be an element of disconnect. See! Despite my best efforts, Life of Pi remains the book its author intended. I’m gonna go read Spider-Man now.

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