Monday, July 16, 2007

Life of Pi: Some Reflections

I read Yann Martel's novel, "The Life of Pi" last week and as I am sitting here bloggin in Kellogg, I don't have the book with me. This won't be an essay written for class, but some reflections I've had about the novel over the last week.

I'm not going to refer much to the plot. If you haven't read it, I won't spoil much. I hope you will still enjoy what I have to say. If you have read it, see what you think of what came to mind when I did.

"The Life of Pi" triggered in me a lot of thoughts about a lot of other books and poems. It was as if the book were filled with hyperlinks and when I clicked on them, the click took me to links in my memory. A predominant link was the following poem by Victor Hernandez Cruz:

Problems with Hurricanes

A campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it's not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I'll tell you he said:
it's the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.

How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying

Death by drowning has honor.
If the wind picked you up
and slammed you
Against a mountain boulder
This would not carry shame
to suffer a mango smashing
Your skull
or a plantain hitting your
Temple at 70 miles per hour
is the ultimate disgrace.

The campesino takes off his hat –
As a sign of respect
toward the fury of the wind
And says:
Don't worry about the noise
Don't worry about the water
Don't worry about the wind –
If you are going out
beware of mangoes
And all such beautiful
sweet things.

Beware, the campesino says, of flying fruit. Fruits which are sweet and beautiful, but in a hurricane can be transformed into deadly missiles.

This is the reality of "The Life of Pi." Nothing in the story is either good or bad, helpful or dangerous, life-giving or life-denying: everything hold contrary qualities at the same time.

It's an ocean story. The ocean grows to metaphorically stand for an almost infinite variety of qualities, both concrete and abstract. But whatever it stands for figuratively, it literally holds within its power that which gives life and that which takes life away.

In this way, I kept thinking about "Moby Dick". Melville's story is his vehicle for exploring the mystery of God, often embodied in the great white whale himself, the whale whom Ishmael looks upon and sees "the inscrutable brow of the great white whale". Melville's understanding of God is as a being who is not only inscrutable, but who possesses all the contradictory forces of life: anger, revenge, calmness, giver of life, denier of life, a being who reveals himself and a being who hides deep beneath the surface of human sight, a being chased, fought with, battled against, a being needed by Ahab and scorned by Ahab.

Pi is a teenager. He is restlessly eager to understand the divine. He refuses to be confined by the practice of any one of the world's religions and sees in a way his elders cannot that dimensions of the divine exist in one faith that is not as apparent in another, but that if they are taken together, he can experience a clearer, though not full, experience with the inscrutable existence of the divine he longs to know.

Pi is a student of both theology and zoology (these apparent opposites co-exist in him). He is a young man of faith and reason; his ways of knowing and his understanding of reality combine the scientific method and leaps of faith. Thus, his long encounter with the ocean magnifies the co-existence of visible and invisible realities and of scientific as well as non-scientific ways of knowing.

In that he is a rather naive, but brilliant young man, thrust by circumstance into an alien world that calls upon his every resource to survive, the story, in its concrete detail, often called "Robinson Crusoe" to mind. At times, Pi also seemed to be a young Aristotle, or a young man of the Enlightenment, reasoning out problems, cataloguing his efforts, detailing his successes and his failures as a way of working to ensure his survival.

But, scientific cataloguing doesn't, and can't, capture the whole truth of experience. And faith and miracle and inscrutability cannot be expressed scientifically.

So, along with being a kind of religiously promiscuous Huston Smith-like guy, he is also a junior Joseph Campbell. He tells truth through story. His adventure becomes a myth. In order to understand his experience and, then, to be understood, he mythologizes his experience; he becomes a young Homer and his adventure is his Odyssey.

If you read the book, you'll see what happens when the investigators interview him and what they think of his version of truth. I'll only say that when they hear his mythological story and are skeptical, Pi tells another story.

Thus, the book "The Life of Pi" becomes a novel of competing narratives. One way to look at the two stories is to ask, like a journalist, "Which is true?"

I think Pi would have us ask another question, "Which is truth/Truth?"

After all, Pi is a seeker of Truth and he knows that what is true is often inadequate to the task of telling what is truth/Truth.

That's what the "Life of Pi" leaves us asking ourselves: what do we understand as truth/Truth and by what means to we investigate, express, and understand it.

Or, is there truth/Truth?

If you enjoy this kind of reflection, I think you'll enjoy "The Life of Pi."

I do.

I did.


Scott Garner said...

You also hit on a very Zen truth that dichotomy is sameness, which I think is evidenced in the book from the earliest paragraphs. The wholeness of being, not the momentary expression and evaluation, is the valued commodity in Martel's book.

As a former journalist, I struggled with the task of reporting events as they happened rather than in their wholeness. But time and human events seldom complete their wholeness except in staggered chapters. I discovered that to be a good reporter/writer, I had to convey the wholeness through the limitations of exposition. As a person, I have to express my wholeness through the moment -- exactly the opposite principle, really.

The time has almost come for me to re-read Life of Pi. Your excellent observations may have spurred me to the bookcase.

Inland Empire Girl said...

Excellent thoughts. I guess I better add this to the pile of books for summer/fall reading.